Everyone sees something different when they look at Los Angeles. This is something the cinema has capitalized on repeatedly, taking advantage of the deep neon-fueled hues and day-glo brightness to varying effect, even beyond what’s comprehensive spotlighted in Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). Nicolas Winding Refn has filmed there twice, once as a dangerously pulsating dream (Drive) and again as a vainly self-consuming nightmare (The Neon Demon). Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was a swooning love song to the city’s elusive promises. In his 5th feature Gemini, Aaron Katz, not as vigorously intentional a dramatist, sees Los Angeles for its unnerving threats and promises, but isn’t so interested in the broad ideas the city inspires as he is in the conflicted feelings of those living under its imposing glow.
Following up a more small time mystery thriller, his lovably meandering Cold Weather, Katz has moved from the cool mist of Portland to the somnambulant haze of L.A. for something that’s less mumblecore heightened by thriller tensions than a murder-mystery made intimate through mumblecore tactics. Rather than affably dopey characters slowly encircling into a crime plot, the city of L.A. already has its prongs piercing the characters at the start. Lola Kirke, making startlingly good on the promise of Mistress America, plays Jill, assistant and best friend to movie star Heather (Zoe Kravitz, a bittersweet delight), who’s already caving under the weight of fame when we’re introduced to her. They’re having one night to extricate themselves from her stardom, which quickly becomes a good-humored, intimate dream neither of them particularly want to end.
Certainly the audience doesn’t, as we go in with an already synopsized expectation of what’s to come. Hell, the film practically taunts us with our knowledge of it, as several characters in the first act scream about how they want to kill Heather for needfully extricating herself from her celebrity status. So when Jill arrives at Heather’s luminous glass mansion to find her boss lying bloody on the floor, it’s less a shock to the system than a brutal matter-of-fact inevitability. This is Los Angeles, the city of bloodsucking producers, agents and paparazzi desperate to squeeze the life from the young and beautiful. There’s an endless coterie of potential suspects, and with Jill herself at the top of the police’s list, she’s forced to go into plucky investigator mode to find her friend’s killer, dodging John Cho’s somewhat performative detective Ahn along the way.
Jill’s investigation follows something of a repeated route through those she and Heather encountered the night before, from the sleazy paparazzo desperate to eke out a manipulative scoop about Heather’s sexuality to an unnervingly insistent psycho super-fan, to the jilted director who counsels Jill through who he’d suspect if this were a mystery film, and why narrative unpredictability ensures that it’s most certainly not that person. Even in the wake of grief, darting humor courses its way through, which is frankly unavoidable given Jill’s ultra-conspicuous incognito detective look – blonde hair, beige blazer and cloche hat. Katz manages to inject an extraordinary amount of brisk comedy into the hunt without betraying Gemini‘s somber tone and genuinely cultivated noir stylings.
The most merited flaw in Gemini‘s framework is also its most necessary: it loses a significant part what made it initially magical once the relationship between Jill and Heather is lost. Less a boss-employee dynamic than two friends whose livelihoods and everyday sense of fun and enjoyment are inextricably wrapped up in each other, Katz understands that it need not be romantic to be the most cherished thing in both their lives. Most viewers will be too caught up in the film’s lovably screwball highs and tensely moody lows to decipher the film’s elusive title, but you couldn’t better describe the film’s tone than by looking up Geminis’ horoscope traits: Sociable, ready for fun, until suddenly serious and contemplative. Tracking down its Greek mythology roots, though, you can easily see Jill and Heather playing out the myth of Pollux sharing his immortality with royal Spartan descendant Castor. Fame may hold plenty of promises for Heather, but the promise of a freely expressive life isn’t one of them.
Even admitting that the 2nd half isn’t quite as stunning as its first, Gemini holds itself together throughout with the formidable confidence of Katz’s carefully stylized direction, keeping to simple, but striking, compositions in its most adrenaline fueled moments. It often feels Wild Canaries (BAMcinemaFest 2014) by way of Michael Mann. As shot by Katz’s regular D.P. Andrew Reed, Los Angeles’ ubiquitous palm trees come to resemble both upside-down chandeliers and sharp-tipped rods, symbolic of both the wealth and suffocation of celebrity. The sets feel decisively picked for their labyrinthine noir aesthetics; reflective palaces and upwardly spiraling apartment complexes, emphasizing how easy it is for Jill to hide from intruders and how impossible it is for Heather. Katz is emulating noir all the way down to Keegan DeWitt’s reliably stunning score, its mournful brass horns and sparky drum beats further solidifying Gemini as both an emotionally generous relationship study and a rare modern noir classic.