Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Mumble noir: Aaron Katz's Gemini (2017)

Jill (Lola Kirke) works as the personal assistant/confidant to starlet Heather (Zoe Kravitz), curbing her excesses and keeping her career on track. After breaking up with her boyfriend and dropping out of a big project, Heather is starting to spiral.

Before Jill can get a handle on what is troubling her friend/employer, she finds Heather shot to death.

As the last person to see Heather, Jill quickly comes under suspicion from police. In an effort to clear her name, Jill goes off the grid to figure out who killed her friend.

I was a big fan of director Aaron Katz's last genre effort, Cold Weather. That movie married a fairly simple detective plot to the subtle untangling of a sibling relationship. It was a wonderfully compact little movie that found a way to re-contextualise a genre within the frame of an indie-dramedy.

Eight years later, Katz has returned to genre cinema with Gemini, a noir-tinged murder mystery that feels like an attempt to expand upon Cold Weather's modest canvas, with a more ambitious aesthetic and big name actors (Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz).

Though it has many qualities to recommend it, Gemini does not quite have the same lo-fi thrill as his earlier film. While its pacing is measured, and there are no generic plot conventions (e.g. a villain, a chase, an (onscreen) murder) to make it predictable, there is something weirdly rote and shambolic about the story that makes it somewhat frustrating.

Gemini feels like an aesthetic exercise in search of a strong cinematic idea: by that I don't specifically mean narrative, but the movie does not add up to anything. It is disappointing because for about the first hour I was digging the characters and the overall vibe.

I enjoyed the time Katz took to build the rapport between Jill and her self-involved employer, Heather (Kravitz). The actresses have a neat dynamic where each character has power over the other in a series of overlapping relationships: employer-employee; friends; mother-daughter; big-little sister.

Frankly, if the movie had been about their relationship rather than a mystery it might have worked as a small character piece about a spoilt movie star and her assistant/confidant trying to navigate the cesspits of LA.

Visually, Katz does not try to recreate classic noir - his approach vaguely reminded me of Soderbergh, in that he did not go for visual or aural cues that provoke an emotional response. The camerawork is pretty restrained - there are many scenes which take place in extended wide shots, with few high or low angles that would betray an obvious affinity with classic noir.

The most interesting part of the movie from a visual standpoint is the use of colour - Katz makes subtle use of chiaroscuro and splashes of neon that cast LA as a flashy, empty wasteland of broken dreams. It is a great visual evocation of Heather's desensitised reaction to her life and career.

The real standout element is Keegan DeWitt's (Heart Beats Loud) score, a contemporary riff on mid-century noir that combines trap-like beats to a lonely saxophone. It is so atmospheric and mournful, while avoiding obvious emotional cues, that it gives the movie a cohesion and pathos that it would otherwise lack.

With its focus on building the relationship between its leads, this movie is the definition of a slow-burn. The movie takes its time, and the two actresses - particularly Kirke as the no-nonsense Jill - make it worth watching.

In the early going, the mystery is kind of interesting. There is the kernel of an interesting idea in Jill's (Kirke) sleuthing, as she follows Heather's various associates, trying to figure out which one is the guilty party. The fact that she is effectively on the run from the cops adds an additional layer of danger that makes the middle section of the movie rather engrossing.

But when - spoilers - it turns out that Heather is not dead, the movie falls off a cliff. With a movie like this, slow burn tension is great  if it has a payoff.

To be honest, the final twist is easy to catch, but the way the movie resolves is such a non-event that it  retroactively lowered my enjoyment of the movie until that point. The main problem is that after the reveal, we get a basic confession of motive, and then cut to some time later, with heather being interviewed by Ricki Lake (not playing herself) about her disappearance.

While Gemini  has included some narrative ellipses up to this point, the choice to cut away with no real explanation comes off as a cheat (especially considering Heather technically killed somebody who looked like herself), and the disconnect between the story and the style becomes detrimental to the movie: after creating all this chaos for our protagonist, to have it all swept away in an edit does not come off like an attempt to re-work dramatic resolution, but an easy way to get around having to figure out how our heroines sort out the legal and personal fallout of their actions (well, it's really Heather's fault, but still).

The movie ends up feeling incredibly silly and unsatisfying.

BUT, and this might sound strange, despite its failings, I will admit that I was really taken in by the first two thirds of this movie. The combination of noir and mumblecore makes sense here, with the fatalism of the former blending with the latter's struggle for purpose. It is an odd marriage that - in the end - does not go the distance, but as an attempt to bring a genre into contemporary times, both literally and stylistically, Gemini is an intriguing watch.


Cold Weather

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