Gemini (USA, 2017)

Opening with an upside down image of palm trees against a purple tinted night sky, Gemini is an impeccably stealthy neo-noir that coolly traverses Los Angeles while confidently playing with its popular iconography. Those familiar with Aaron Katz as the writer-director of such unassuming independent affairs as Dance Party USA (2006), Quiet City (2007), and Cold Weather (2010) might balk at the prospect of his low-key sensibility getting an aesthetic makeover at the Nicolas Winding Refn mood salon, but Gemini proves to be an absolute pleasure.

For the initial half-hour, Katz continues with the ‘hang out’ approach that once found him lumped in with the fleeting mumblecore movement. The crucial difference here is that he adds a layer of clandestine tension by having one of the people who just wants to take it easy be the subject of intense media scrutiny. That stressed millennial is high profile actress Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz) who is first seen pleading with her personal assistant Jill (Lola Kirke) to attend a dinner meeting with writer-director Greg (Nelson Franklin) on her behalf. Desperately in need of some time away from the spotlight, Heather cajoles Jill into telling Greg that she is dropping out of his next movie, effectively killing the project. Once business has been taken care of, it’s time for a boozy Koreatown karaoke session in the company of model Tracy (Greta Lee).

This almost dreamlike first act posits after hours Los Angeles as a place where what constitutes ‘late night’ varies depending on how long it takes for those with sufficient celebrity cachet to release their frustration through partying at their private venue of choice. The luminous Kravitz plays Heather as an “It Girl” who may be flighty but is undeniably magnetic when out to have a good time. Keegan DeWitt’s intoxicating sax-fused electro score conjures sensuous atmospherics, while undercutting the carefree pleasure by striking ominous notes that suggest trouble is brewing.

The following day, Jill returns to Heather’s swanky residence after running errands only to find the traumatic sight of the star’s dead body. Interrogated by the friendly but decidedly no-nonsense detective Edward Ahn (John Cho), Jill realizes that she is in the frame. The murder weapon is a revolver Heather had borrowed from her out of safety concerns and the crime scene suggests a professional falling out. Narrowly avoiding arrest, Jill works through a short list of suspects. Aside from the infuriated Greg, there’s include Heather’s temperamental ex-boyfriend Devin (Reeve Carney), shameless paparazzo Stan (James Ransone), and obsessed fan Sierra (Jessica Parker Kennedy).

Contrary to the mumblecore ethos that talk is cheap, Katz’s films have never revolved around dialogue, with characters expressing themselves indirectly through awkward silences and halting conversations. Given the noir vibe, the patter in Gemini is necessarily sharper, but nonetheless still light on exposition as everyone here is the moment or thinking about their next move. Heather and Jill obviously have a relationship that goes beyond a typical star-assistant arrangement, but the mystery of how close or co-dependent they truly are is just as tantalizing as the murder plot. In this respect, the film echoes the brother/sister relationship in Cold Weather, which had obviously suffered estrangement, but the precise details were never spoken as Katz focused on tentative reconnection through amateur sleuthing.

Although she remains coolly deadpan throughout much of her ordeal, Jill is revealed through her reaction to being suddenly under duress. Katz elicits a terrifically composed performance from Kirke, whose naturalistic presence courts comparison with Kristin Stewart in the loosely similar Personal Shopper (2017), albeit with markedly less anxiety. Jill is probably used to being the smartest, or at least most level headed person in the room but meets her match in the intuitive Ahn. His line of questioning cuts straight to the chase with brief personal detours that put her ever so slightly on edge. Played with refined charm by Cho, the detective makes such a strong impression that it’s perhaps surprising that Katz keeps him on the periphery. But Jill’s lack of consideration of him as a potential ally, especially when he seems sympathetic to her plight despite the apparently open and shut case, is especially telling.

Probing the suspect about her roots in Portland and reason for relocation to Los Angeles, Ahn immediately implies that this thoroughly practical assistant is as in love with Hollywood as any wide-eyed ingénue, and she doesn’t like it one bit. Jill’s ensuing investigation is right out of the thriller playbook – changing her hair color, donning a daft trench coat disguise, sneaking into a suspect’s hotel room, and riding a motorcycle through the Hollywood Hills with a cop car in pursuit. Her ill-fated friend and employer may be a star of the Instagram era, but Jill has more classic tastes, as evidenced by her choice of residence, which recalls the iconic Bradbury Building with its old-fashioned elevator.

It’s all deftly handled by Katz and his regular cinematographer Andrew Reed, who expertly contrast old and more recent Hollywood structures while referencing the quintessentially ‘80s texture of thrillers like American Gigolo (1980) and Body Double (1984), not to mention Michael Mann’s cinematic meditations on Los Angeles, without being too on the nose about it. Although this is a genre that often calls for claustrophobic close-ups, Katz and Reed generally keep a measured distance, with Reed pulling off some superb steadicam shots that smoothly immerse the viewer in Jill and Heather’s chitchat. Later, the aforementioned vehicular chase is shot from a far vantage point with Jill’s motorcycle and the police car like pieces on a chessboard. Life in Los Angeles is a game, even when freedom is at stake.

Katz may frustrate some viewers with a reveal that seemingly wraps-up a number of threads with a jarring casualness. However, the denouement cunningly poses a damning critique of privacy, personal choice, and celebrity entitlement that updates the fatalistic noir payoff for today’s vapid mediated landscape. Crucially, it’s Katz’s perceptive take on the complex nature of relationships that makes Gemini catnip for his long-term admirers and curious genre aficionados alike.