SFIFF Insight: How Coherence Doesn’t End

Coherence film 2013Have you seen James Byrkit’s film Coherence? This is the first film from the guy who co-wrote the bizarre and beautiful Rango. It’s a picture impressing festival audiences wherever it plays.

If you’ve seen it; good.

If not, this article will rapidly make the experience of seeing it — when you do — less mysterious. And why would you want that? Go see Coherence as soon as it hits your town, then come back and read this post in which we will give away exactly how the film doesn’t end.

If you’re in San Francisco or other parts of the Bay Area, Coherence is playing at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 29th at 9:45 pm. See if you can get in.

Coherence plays with a twisty, perplexing plot, but going into the film cold isn’t really about avoiding spoilers. It’s about giving yourself room to solve a mystery on your own. Here at Stand By For Mind Control, we’re all about making our brains work. So get to work, brain.

Coherence film 2013Coherence — as you know because you’ve seen it — deals with a collision of parallel universes. Multiple versions of the same eight dinner party guests mingle in a number of identical houses. Watching the players come to terms with their dimensional decoherence is a squirrelly source of both drama and comedy. The film was outlined in detail by Byrkit over the course of a year, but then improvised by his cast in only a handful of days. The actors knew as little about would happen to their characters as you should have when you sat down for your first screening.*

Coherence is a story of layers, much like Shane Carruth’s Primer, but with a lot less basis in even surreal science. As Bykrit related to the audience at the SFIFF, his film is aiming more towards the Twilight Zone than anything else.

Weird shit happens; the fact that most of it is science-fictional lunacy doesn’t much matter.

A comet causing planes of reality to swamp each other? Ridiculous. But fun.

Coherence film 2013While Byrkit’s handheld style — busy with a shallow depth of field and lots of rack focusing — drove me a bit nuts, it was a reasonable solution to a lack of funds and actors working without a script. Those improvised performances and characterizations, since we mention them, impressed me across the board. More so once we take the project’s limitations into consideration. Seeing Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Nicholas Brendon onscreen again ought to make you happy as well.

Brendon’s character, like that of his compatriots, felt like a fully fledged human: intricate, consistent, and flawed in an original way.

At the Q & A after the screening I had a chance to pose a question to James Byrkit. I had just watched Coherence, gradually growing in comprehension and feeling fairly tickled throughout. Then, towards the end, when lead character Em (Emily Baldoni) decides to finally grasp her life (lives) by the horns, the film lost me. Not a lot, but appreciably.

While the production had well established Em’s motivations for striving hard to gain the life she wanted, resorting to violence seemed a large leap for her. Not only does Em twice attack an innocent to steal everything her victim possesses, but the innocent is — down to nearly the quantum level — herself.

Is that something you could bring yourself to do? To attack yourself? Em either twice attempts murder or she hasn’t thought through her actions very far. Where else can her doppelgänger go but a shallow grave?

So I asked James Byrkit how early in the process he had envisioned his ending and found his answer illuminating. He told us how Coherence doesn’t end:

My glow stick is orange.

My glow stick is orange.

Originally, the film was conceived as wrapping up with everyone in the house(s) realizing that they needed to get to the ‘dark space’ in which the universes collided. They all stampede out the door and blast towards the nexus. As they approach, they see looming out of the dark ahead of them a version of themselves. Reaching out their hands to grasp themselves by the shoulder, a hand grasps them from behind and they spin around in an infinite loop of surprise.

I think I might have appreciated that ending more; an oblique finale that leaves the future pretty preposterous.

Byrkit went on to share that he realized as we worked that the film needed a main character, and that ended up being Em. He almost called the film ‘The Understudy’, but Coherence won the day. And so, in the version that got shot, poor Em gets stuck once again as an understudy, except this time her own, and a criminal one.

Although what the charge could be, I couldn’t say; I guess that’s attempted suicide?



* Except for Alex Manugian, who both played Amir and helped with the outlining

30 responses on “SFIFF Insight: How Coherence Doesn’t End

  1. I liked the movie, but I wanted to like it more. I felt like the director was trying to “have his cake and eat it too” by the ending though. The way I see it was since there were a high number of possible realities simultaneously existing, the main character walked around trying to find a reality that she personally wanted to belong to. Some of the houses she looked in on had her “friends” in worse situations than her group had, some not so much. The idea being that if the realities collapsed onto each other once the comet passed, she would be stuck in the reality she chose, or, she would just cease to exist. Once she found a house where she looked happy and in love, she decided to attack/drug/kill her other self. Once she did she took her place.

    Then she sees herself trying to get back into the bathroom. Was this the same girl she threw in her car? I’m leading towards yes, but with a high number of possible realities, who can be sure? After she rejoins the group, she passed out. I first thought that the comet had passed and her reality “didn’t make it,” but then I thought, all realities exist at once, so no matter where she is, she exists.

    So she wakes up in this seemingly different reality, but her husband/boyfriend/whatever gets a call from “her.” One can only assume this is her trying to warn her guy not to trust the woman standing in front of him. This is where I feel the director doesn’t have a clear message.

    If it had an ending such as Source Code, which was then you can say Emily now inhabits this somewhat new life and everything that comes with it. Well then how does a phone call come through? Are they trying to say that because she jumped into a different reality, there are multiple variations after the comet has passed? I get that it has some strange effects, but given everything we’ve seen, I think some further explanation should have been given, or, no phone call.

    • Hey Greyson,

      It’s been a while, but I think what happened was much like you surmise. Emily looked for and found the reality she wanted to live in. She tried to do away with the version of herself (Emily #2) who belonged in that reality — but she did a crap job. Emily #2 survived/escaped and phoned the boyfriend to warn him about Emily 1.

      So no phone call from alternate dimensions. Just two Emilys surviving in one dimension.

      • Which is why I think the director doesn’t have a clear ending, so I agree with you that it “doesn’t end.” If it was a time loop, or a time travel based story where multiple characters exist to do different things (Triangle for instance) that would make sense.

        However we are supposed to take the plot/conflict at face value from our characters, meaning they tell us the comet has strange occurrences, and they are the ones who tell us we’re dealing with multiple realities. The reason I say that is because they are the ones who state the realities will collapse in on each other, SO, it’s either one prime reality survives (which may be what Emily was trying for), or every reality survives in their own reality. I know it’s a lot of jumbo so I hope that makes sense.

        Meaning, if the realities collapse, only 1 character should survive, so there should only be 1 Emily. Even if more than 1 character exists in the same house, like the 2 Mikes tied up, only one should survive even if all realities survive. I don’t think a reality can exist with multiples of one or neither of one, but then again, maybe there are rules we don’t know about.

        • hmm… I see what you’re saying, but you’re trying to apply strict logic to something that’s clearly not attempting to be logical, or explainable.

          something i can do, too, which is why i so disliked Looper.

          but if there can be multiple realities due to a passing comet, why can’t there be multiple Emilys in one reality after they collapse again? or, for that matter, multiple unicorns with laser eyes or anything at all?

          i dug Coherence. i think the ending was a bit soft, but not because it doesn’t make sense — none of it makes sense — but because it didn’t feel like Emily would take those steps.

          but what do I know? I’m not any number of Emilys.

    • I agree there should not have been a phone call. At the end when Em wakes up, viewers start to wonder if she dreamt it all. Seeing the broken windshield confirms the events of the night happened. Holding two rings in her hand reveals to the viewers which Em she is and confirms she was successful at entering an alternate life for herself. This is where the film could have ended. The viewer is somewhat satisfied that Em made it but has a vague lingering thought about the other Em’s and what happened to them. A foggy cliffhanger like this doesn’t really lead the audience toward any one resolution. However, with a phone call, the direct communication from another Em, the story comes to an abrupt stop–not at a cliffhanger but a fork in the road. The phone call spurred another conflict, another branch of the plot. Now the unanswered questions are numerous. Is the story trying to say the one in the tub or the one in the trunk called? Or could it even be a fourth?
      What I gathered is that the “happy house” was unaware of the comet passing by because their power was working and no candles were present. Not until they went outside to gaze at the comet did their electricity flicker. So that means no one in that house had reason to wander into the dark zone. The “happy house” conveys more or less the ideal life of the characters. The less happy Em’s could all be having the same thought–maybe there is a parallel life where everything is better–and they go out to find it. The one calling could be one she has not encountered yet; maybe one that attacked the Em that staggered into the bathroom before our protagonist could put her in the tub. Therefore, more than three Em’s could be possible.

      • I don’t think the ending you suggest would work the way you think. You’d be writing in this comment thread, “But what about the other Em?!!?!?!” Remember: it’s much easier to criticize than it is to write! This ending is purposefully vexing, which is what’s making you look up articles about it and write responses and think about the film.

        That means it works as a piece of art.

        As for your extrapolation that they ‘happy house’ didn’t know about the comet, I think that’s not necessarily so. I think it’s more likely they weren’t FRIGHTENED by the weirdness.

      • I agree. Finishing with her holding the two rings would have been much more satisfying, and would have given the film more finality. The phone call makes it feel as though the story doesn’t really come to any sort of conclusion; rather that’s the point where they just decided to stop filming.

        • I am almost thinking that, regarding the ending, some of you guys are think way too complicated.
          TL is absolutely right, there could be three Ems or even more in that house, I mean there were even four of the notes in one house (box) before.
          So, at the ending of the film, Em found a house in which the people a. never went out of the house because everything (regarding power) was Ok, or, went out and came back to the same correct house. No need of boxes, tokens, suspicions, going to other houses, etc.
          So fine house for Em 1, assaulting Em 2, Em 2 crawled back in house, knocked out again, lost ring in bathroom, Em 2 is put in bathtub, Em 1 passed out, comet split, box removed, reality in this box became real for these people so two Ems and two rings. End of story… ;)

  2. The writer ruined the ending because it does not make sense at all. EM wakes up dazed and realizes shes in the other reality. She was going to leave after the other her staggered in the bathroom but passed out before she could leave. Awake and afraid that the other EM is dead in the bathroom she walks to the bathroom slowly, dreading each step, when the door starts to open and to her amazement its her friend Beth. This is where he screws up. What happened to the other EM that should be in the bathtub where Beth just got out of? lol. She then walks out side to make sure it was all real that she didnt dream it all up and sees that the windshield is still broken. Now Im really confused because when the phone call from the other EM happens, he looks at her but who was on the other line, which EM. lol. Was she calling from the trunk, lol. or are there 1000 ems running around since one left her reality maybe they all left at some point and ended up in the same place or many in other ones. Anyways, the comet should still be travelling by the earth so was it done yet? I thnk that this was an excellent movie especially for a low budget but I wish they would have consulted me, lol, because the ending got rushed I believe. lol. I still want to know what the heck happened to the EM in the bathtub, it couldnt be the one on the phone. lol. Please dont rush the ending and if youre struggling, get some expert advice from a quantum physicist.

    • sorry, john. i think you just made a few incorrect assumptions which don’t play well with this film.

      a) she wasn’t going to leave; or at least there’s no indication of what her plans were.
      b) the other em in the bathtub did any number of things that made her no longer be in the bathtub; i.e. got up and walked out at any point during the night.
      c) it is unclear which em — if there are more than two — phoned. but not really important. one of the em’s Em tried to kill called, outing her as the doppelgänger em in this universe.


      d) a quantum physicist would tell you everything from beginning to end was nonsense. that’s because it’s science-fiction.

      if they did consult you, how would you have ended the film?

  3. I prefer to think that Em1 walked into the happy house and drugged the Em2 who was there and took her place. Then Em3 (our protagonist) walked into the happy house and put Em1 in the trunk. Then Em3 saw Em2 staggering out of the house and put her in the bathroom. Em3 passed out on the couch and we see her wake up. Em2 later got out of the bathtub and what? I’m not sure. But Em2 might be the person who called. Or maybe Em1 is calling from the trunk.

    • Huh. It’s been a while since I watched it now, but I don’t recall there being any indication of more than 2 Emilys in the happy-house-universe.

      But hell, if that makes you happy, run with it!

  4. So I have just watched Coherence and was searching for anyone feeling the same feelings, and asking the same questions I wanted to ask and Greyson Flax did exactly that. I thought the movie was great until the very end when the other Emily rings. Also as Greyson Flax said they go to the point to mentioning the collapsing of other dimensions upon the ending of the event which adds even more of a detraction from the immersion of the whole premise of the movie. As you said Evil Genius it is obviously a movie and not “logical”, though I feel they were trying their hardest to apply real theoretical theories, which they did reasonably well (to my knowledge), and I find it a shame to have all of that effort and the immersion it creates for the viewer to only have it ruined at the end.

    • I can’t argue with you feeling disappointed, Taxxman, but it was clear from what the director said that applying anything resembling real science wasn’t an aim. The fact that you felt they were doing so attests to the power of well-written fiction.

      I see a lot people visiting this post looking for answers. Hi ya’ll. The ending to this film is a little off, yes, but here’s the thing: the ending isn’t about the multiple universes or the collapsing of them. It’s about Emily.

      The ending is about how Emily ends up as the understudy, yet again, instead of in the part she wants. You can try to make sense of the bullshit physics if it makes you happy, but any sense you make up is just that: stuff you make up. There is no answer; no science; no truth.

      Just the feeling of wanting to be the best you that you can be, and failing.

      I think that’s a lot to think about and I’m pretty satisfied with that aspect of the close. If anything, I think they got too worried about making the film make sense (which is why I like the original idea for the ending better).

      But most of all I’m just glad so many people saw such a small film and I’m even happier that they’re still thinking about it after they left the theater — that means it wasn’t totally forgettable, like most films.

      If you liked Coherence until the end, you should watch Primer. And also Timecrimes. And The One I Love is in theaters now and is way cooler than you’d think from the poster. Check out our link to I Like to Watch — that’s full of nothing but awesome films you might enjoy even more than Coherence.

  5. I thought the ending was awesome. It was similar to how inception ended leaving the audience uneasy. I don’t think it would have been as exciting if there was a happy/logical ending. I hope other people appreciate it was much as I did. Film is an art and this was a masterpiece in sci-fi.

  6. I don’t know, the ending didn’t really do it for me. I don’t have any problem with the physics or that it ended as Em being the understudy again, it’s just some little details like when the Emily from the happy house wakes up in the bathtub after being drugged and then knocked out by her evil doppelganger Emily what does she do?? She cleans the bathtub, sneaks out of the house or hides somewhere and then calls Kevin? I just don’t see anyone doing that.

    • That sort of stuff can be a problem, PsychoMichelle. Sure. It’s a matter of whether you’re with the film (like Jon P was) or not. If you are, then generally you’re happy to come up with reasons for why the character would do that peculiar thing. If not, then it all feels wrong.

  7. In my opinion the ending was brilliant. It remindet me alot of the tv series the outer limits, where you could never be sure what to expect. I personally enjoy it very much when movies come up with something special, no matter if its good or bad. I hope other people think so too. A great science fiction movie that bites back at you.

  8. This movie (which was great) isn’t about a physical literal comet.
    As “Melancholia” was a larger backdrop to clinical depression, “Coherence” focuses on a comet; which represents success and stardom.
    Em let her first comet, her shooting star if you will collapse, rendering her the loser to her understudy.
    A lot of you are complaining that Em’s violent actions are implausible, but really, she’s acting out of complete desperation to regain her life and not lose to another “double” again.
    Kinda profound!

    • I got that too. I felt as though at that point she had finally chosen to take decisive action, as it was established earlier that her main flaw was being too hesitant and tentative. To me that point marks real character development and makes her seem much more like a real person.

  9. It’s not just that Em’s career seems to have been hijacked by others, her relationship seems to going that way, as well. She has been unable to commit to going out of the country with Kevin for even 1 one the 3 months that he will be away. I was not really sure why. She doesn’t have a regular job that would interfere and he seems to really want her to go. Perhaps her life feels so out of control after what happened with the performance that leaving the county seems even more risky than it is, or maybe she suspects that he’s pulling away – in the way that manifests at the party by his interest in Laurie. Or both. She is putting up a front, but her life is really a mess. Because of the way we are dropped into the story, we really don’t know what these characters are capable of, or what is going on in their lives apart from what they show friends at a dinner party. We see this so clearly in the scene where Em suggests that Beth might have put the Ketamine in their food (which is pretty much exactly the first weapon Em uses against her alternate self). Laurie is so clearly “waiting in the wings” for Em and Kevin to break up, so she can get back together with Kevin (whose photo she still keeps in her wallet! Yikes!). I didn’t have trouble believing that Em could kill her alternate self. Everything had broken down. It’s pure existential horror – kill or be killed. Mike realized that and helped cement the idea in Em. She fled from one nightmarish situation and then saw that the almost every other door she could go through was equally, if not more, horrible. So however amoral and wrong it was to try to kill her alternate(s), it was that or consign herself to one of the nightmares and possible oblivion. However, the director was unwilling to let Em be rewarded after such action. It wasn’t just that she attacked her alternate self, she attacked the one version of all of them (as far as she or we knew) that had been untouched by the disintegration of reality. She had truly become the dangerous “other” from an alternate reality.

    I was not happy, emotionally, with the ending because it left me asking so many questions and I wanted more information. Which version of Em was calling Kevin? How many versions of her are running around? Does the phones being back on mean that they can leave the party? Etc. That doesn’t mean it was the “wrong” way to end the film. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am ok with it and even like it. I really want to watch it again and look for the clues/inconsistencies that I know I missed the first time.

    Does Em realize at all when she sees that she has 2 rings the next morning that if one of the rings didn’t disappear it makes it unlikely that extra Em’s didn’t disappear? If reality collapsed into a single version, as she was betting it would, then there shouldn’t be two rings. Right? The version of Em that called Kevin didn’t have her phone break at the beginning of the evening. It seems likely that it is the “original” Em from that universe – in which the partygoers remained unaware that anything weird was going on – calling. I tend to think that it was the Em that had been dosed with Ketamine calling. The Em that got attacked in the bathroom may well have been another alternate. She may have gotten up and wandered back to the extra dark spot, or she might have died and that somehow nullified her existence in the final universe. It’s not science, it’s science fiction, and the Rules of the film’s world are not clear. Incomplete world-building usually bothers me a lot when it happens in science fiction, but here it was necessary to up the level of uncertainty and horror.

    This is the first thing I’ve watched in ages that truly creeped me out. I watched it at home, alone, at night. I certainly would have felt better emotionally if the director had chosen to tie up loose ends and, well, finished the story. If Em had got away with it, if we had seen Em and Kevin driving out of the neighborhood, with Kevin holding her hand and chatting away happily as she looks out the window with a haunted look on her face, it would still have been extremely creepy to watch the first time. It would have become a philosophical movie (and we would be left to wonder whether Em’s experience had actually happened at all) more than a horror movie. If this had been a Hollywood controlled movie, that is how it would have ended (unless they wanted to leave it open for a sequel, in which case they could have had only Em see an alternate Em with a head wound standing on the sidewalk watching the car drive off). This kind of Hollywood version would be clever, but I don’t think it would be as scary. The “infinite loop” version where the film ends with everyone running toward an alternate only to be chased by another alternate is also not nearly as terrifying (frankly, it sounds silly) as the ending that was filmed. The director dangles the hope that morning has come, the comet has passed, and the protagonist will end up not only OK, but in a better situation than she was in at the start of the film. Then he rips that hope away. The nightmare never ends. The dinner party continues on a suburban cul-de-sac of… The Twilight Zone. I think Rod Serling would have approved.

  10. Oops, there are some typos in my comment. The worst was the beginning of the 3rd paragraph. It should have said, “Does Em realize at all, when she sees that she has 2 rings the next morning, that if one of the rings didn’t disappear it makes it unlikely that extra Em’s disappeared?” It’s still a clunky sentence, but that is what I meant to write.

  11. What an enjoyable film. It’s not perfect logic wise but it was fun , I’m happy without a need closure in terms of the story or loose ends, mostly. A few of out loud thoughts, I’d love to discuss , even if you think they’re total garbage.

    Em’s Killing: The motivation seems ok by me. As a few other posts have stated – Laurie says over dinner;
    ” Catherine Marris has your life” Em has experienced the pain of watching on as someone lives her life. She finds the happy house towards the end and is literally watching someone else live her life. Her life has stalled because she has always stalled. She sees her chance to avoid this mistake again and acts quickly. Even if her decision is drastic in the form of violence. I believe, she thinks things will align after a collapse or is just so desperate as she is presented with this second chance she ignores the consequences and acts in the moment.

    Some improvements or my misunderstandings.
    Her Collapse: In Schrodingers Cat, once the collapse is completed there is a finality. No longer do two states exist, just one. When Em literally collapses and woke up it would have been a good metaphor for the worlds to align back into one reality. But they don’t. This was undone by confirmation of the other Em making the phone call to Kevin at the end. Which brings me on to my next point.

    If the film maker wasn’t aiming for logic but confusion, he should have perhaps linked the the start of the film to the end in a circle.
    It is not entirely clear that the em calling is meant to be an injured one so if the idea was to be open with several possibilities he could have added even more.
    -The film both opens and ends with Em on the phone to Kevin. At the start we see Em’s side of the conversation, and at the end Kevins. I do not believe this was meant to be THAT phonecall. But with an ambiguous conversation, even repeating opening dialogue, perhaps the audience could be led to believe this was possible which would add some really interesting confusion and even more possibilities.

    I think the films flaw is the mix of logic and confusion. They contradict each other leaving the audience wanting 100% of one, not a blend of both.

    • Yep. Not total garbage, Fuzzy. Valid interpretation. I’m sticking with my feeling that while Em’s motivation to do violence/claim her victory is established in the script, it doesn’t feel in-character to me. That’s no big criticism. Characters are unpredictable, like people, and they don’t have to make sense 100% of the time.

      Collapses. I had read the film to suggest that the worlds did collapse, but whomever was in a particular house remained in that reality post-collapse; thus at least two Emily’s in the ‘happy house.’

      Interesting idea about the phone call, but that’s adding in an element of time travel, and I don’t think Coherence needs more sci-fi insanity.

      After monitoring the comments on this post for so long, I realize it’s been ages since I’ve watched the film. Time to re-watch it and see how it holds up on second viewing.

  12. Just to clarify what I typed here

    The film both opens and ends with Em on the phone to Kevin. At the start we see Em’s side of A conversation with Kevin then, and at the end Kevin also having A conversation.

  13. Hi, just saw the movie, enjoyed it but what bothers me is not the end but the beginning: I cannot explain to myself how the Hugh of every reality goes to a house he believes being friend’s neighbors to get a phone and hit back doors or leave written papers without showing at the front door as a normal human being. He might have been scared by seeing the neighbors being his friends but then the normal reaction is to run away or try to figure it out, certainly not acting like a ghost.It matters for me as the whole creep is built on this erratic behavior even if you cannot realize it while watching the movie for the first time.

    • Interesting point Rigo. Its now been a long while since i watched the film but that felt like ‘bad decisions made in a fucked up sutuation’ and in character to me. Id have to watch it again to really say more.

  14. The scene in the end is (I believe) another reference to the Shrodinger’s Cat theory – that phone call is like opening the box and seeing the real deal.
    Emily’s two options: noone finds out abt. trunk/bath and she stays well in this reality, other option- anyone finds out what happened and no good comes out of it.
    I guess her chance at merging into this happy reality failed – the Cat is dead, so to say))

  15. The ending was forced. I see the creators originally had another plan. As it stands, the observable realities that Em finds herself in should collapse into just one. There cannot be a call from ‘another her’, either the one in the boot or the one bashed in the bath. There cannot be two or three of her in terms of the film’s own logic. Like the Schrodinger’s cat reference in the film, only the visible (alive, criminal) Em is legit. I did enjoy the film, all the same.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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