Aaron Katz’s first three features established him as one of the leading lights of the “mumblecore” movement which came into vogue in the early 2000s. He became known for the miniscule budgets with which he was able to make his films — Dance Party USA (2006) cost approximately $3,000 and Quiet City (2007) was also made for under $5,000. But to focus on this does a disservice to the films themselves, which are deceptively deft pieces whose conversational tone and seemingly ramshackle structure provide ample space for naturalism and intimacy to flourish. Katz is able to create an environment which strips away artifice and draws out the required qualities from his actors. It was Land Ho! (2014) which really cemented Katz’s standing as a major voice in indie cinema; this wryly observed buddy comedy picked up the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award and garnered rapturous reviews.
Gemini marks another stage in Katz’s development, retaining elements of his previous work while moving cautiously towards more classical storytelling models. Jill (Lola Kirke) is the personal assistant of movie starlet Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz). Anderson has recently split up with her boyfriend, Devin (Reeve Carney), from whom she is receiving threatening phone calls, and is conducting a secret relationship with Tracy (Greta Lee). Jill arrives one morning at Heather’s home to find her employer dead from five gunshot wounds. Suspicion immediately falls on Jill, and she must use all her resources to prove her innocence to the detective in charge of the investigation, Edward Ahn (John Cho).
Act one of Gemini plays like a catalogue of Hollywood archetypes, replete with a capricious producer, irascible agent, desperate hopeful, slimy paparazzi, et al. This is the beginning of a recurring problem: many of the characters feel like types, reliant on the viewer’s understanding of the tropes that underpin them. This can be said to extend to Andrew Reed’s cinematography, which is best described at Nicolas Winding Refn on a budget; full of livid blues and pinks which strain to convey opulent decay. The tone is consciously, almost oppressively, stylish; brimming with meandering tracks and artful compositions; slathered in Keegan DeWitt’s score, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the moody, late-night ambience of German dark jazz luminaries Bohren & der Club of Gore.
As a dissection of this “poisonous town,” Gemini pales alongside the likes of David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014) or Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014). Katz’s screenplay seems unclear about what it wants to stay about these people and the world they inhabit; unlike so many Hollywood-set films, this feels less like an act of revenge than a pretext for a technical exercise. Katz is certainly capable of tracing the film’s central relationship, but fails to adequately shape the contours of the story. Gemini fails to match something like Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005) in its ability to play on genre trappings within a specific social milieu. Katz finds himself trapped between a quirky indie character study and a stylish neo-noir mystery, and the effect is alienating.
Ultimately, Katz fails to do what the Safdie brothers did with Good Time (2017): maintaining the elements that made their Daddy Longlegs (2009) and Heaven Knows What (2014) so compelling, while overlaying them with a further layer of technical and storytelling prowess. Katz’s vision gets lost amidst the architecture, the charm evinced in his previous work is obscured by the glittering skyline. Though Kirke ably bears the film’s dramatic weight with an assured central performance, she is ill-served by a narrative which struggles to settle on a tone and veers into unwitting pastiche at times. Katz may have proven his technical credentials, but something fundamental has been lost in the process; he seems content to fall back on tastefully lit montages and Michael Mann allusions in lieu of a story that is dying to be told. In straining to emulate something in the order of a traditional thriller, Katz and his team of long-time collaborators find themselves sliding perilously towards the formulaic.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.