It’d be easy for a Los Angeles neo-noir to drift onto autopilot — some symmetrical shots here, a skyline view there, now just drench the whole thing in neon. But Aaron Katz’s beguiling whodunit “Gemini” finds new angles to the exhaustively photographed city. Occupying an intersection between vice-laden intrigue and chilled naturalism, it’s a film that’s not only aware of how the harrowed halls of LA pose for the pictures, but weaponizes that impersonal edge against its inhabitants.
The story’s unwitting gumshoe is the fantastically named Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke), an assistant to rising starlet Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz). Jill is first seen tolerating a phone call from her boss’s ex-boyfriend, a nasty director (Reeve Carney) who threatens to kill Heather should she drop out of his picture. The ominous interaction is followed by increasingly unpleasant encounters with a demanding screenwriter, an intense superfan and a parade of paparazzi. Though Jill and Heather simply want to have a night out, the latter’s celebrity status constantly disrupts their evening, suggesting that a more sinister consequence may abruptly arrive.
“Gemini” takes its sweet time arriving at any semblance of a narrative, instead allowing itself to gestate in the glow of Los Angeles’ nightlife. Unlike most noirs, a large fraction of the film’s opening act is spent in the reflective interim of transit, observing the idle conversation between Jill and Heather as they attempt to find sanctuary from a voyeuristic gaze. By separating this central pair from an overbearing world, the details of their friendship are left for the viewer to infer, complicated by tinges of its professional and secretive nature.
Katz’s mumblecore origins as a director lend themselves well to the deceptively detailed talkiness of noir. The passively unfolding rhythms of his dialogue are preserved here, but they’re lent the punctual wit and sardonicism that come with the genre. Both Kirke and Kravitz thrive in their tricky roles, giving reserved yet naturalistic performances that wait to open up until they’re left alone.
But the lived-in rhythms of routine that the actresses bring to life are constantly challenged by their context. The film’s dreamlike vision of Los Angeles is filled with ambiguous conversation and diaphanous surfaces that obscure the perceptions of its living, breathing inhabitants. Through too-smooth glides of the lens and luscious ambient lighting, Katz synthesizes the city’s glitz to craft a landscape defined by white noise and loneliness.
The look owes its immersive qualities to a somewhat rote aesthetic sensibility, yet its familiarity only further emphasizes the unique vibrancy of the film’s characters. Juxtaposing the flattened ethnographic glimpses of bright laundromats and Koreatown karaoke are the traces of organic behavior littered throughout the film. Hesitative pauses and inside jokes color an overarching interest in the perpetually developing nature of friendship, setting a trap door for the mournful and confused air that the film comes to abruptly adopt.
Walking the line between both glossy and emotive is the melancholy score by Katz’s frequent collaborator Keegan DeWitt. A peculiar concoction of hypnotic trap beats and wild keyboard synth peppered with the forlorn croons of a lonely saxophone, DeWitt’s sublime work is the film’s transcendent achievement.
Though “Gemini” stumbles in its transition from quiet-night-out to hardboiled crime, Kirke’s accomplished lead performance continues to provide an ample emotional foundation. Convicted of a crime without an alibi, Jill’s self-assured innocence in the face of a world pointing fingers at her gradually metastasizes into a traumatic suspiciousness of every corner of the city.
But Jill is denied a satisfying form of catharsis by the film’s clever punchline of an ending. More of a shaggy-dog story than a clean-cut mystery, “Gemini” follows its interest in relationships to its conclusion.
Katz’s thorough understanding of both the seductive and dehumanizing qualities of genre ends up materializing in perversely dissatisfying ways. While the snowballing paranoia at play intrudes upon the characters’ lives, it also creates demanding situations in which they can test the limits of their connections. Both as studious of personalities and accusable of bullshit as the astrology that its title evokes, “Gemini” is an ephemeral wonder, daring enough to disappear, leaving nothing to feel but its characters’ disappointments.
“Gemini” is currently playing at AMC Metreon 16.
Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].