Writer-director Aaron Katz still gets pigeonholed as a progenitor of the mumblecore movement, that umbrella term that conjures wobbly framed scenes of directionless 20-somethings’ meandering, natural-seeming relationship talk. That reputation does a disservice to the centrality of place, of thoughtfully composed exteriors, in Katz’s work. Katz has shot two movies in his native Portland, Oregon: his breakthrough debut, Dance Party, USA (2006), and the rain-soaked amateur-gumshoe noir Cold Weather (2010). Katz lived for a spell in Brooklyn, which informed his affectionate New York-set romance Quiet City (2007), and he later teamed up with Martha Stephens for the buddy comedy Land Ho! (2014), which unfolds in scenic Iceland. In each instance, Katz’s ear for dialogue and interest in person-to-person interaction is partnered with artful image-making and a gently revelatory focus on geography.
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A few years ago, Katz moved to Los Angeles, which serves as the setting of his latest. Gemini is a shimmering puzzler that begins with an act of Land Ho!-esque palling around before warping into an unlikely detective story in the Cold Weather vein. Where Dance Party, USA opens on an intimate shot of Katz’s heroine (Anna Kavan) waking up groggy after a night of drinking, Gemini introduces itself with full minutes of images of upside-down L.A. palm trees — a moody montage of paradise inverted. This speaks to an enlarging of scope: Gemini is arguably the first Katz movie in which the backdrop regularly supplants the characters populating it. Katz, who also edited, and his director of photography, Andrew Reed, relish the transitional sequences, pausing the narrative to marvel over neon-accented vistas in which palm trees and skyscrapers overlap. (Their reveries are aided by another terrific score from Keegan DeWitt, a national treasure.)
They tell a story in there, too. It centers on Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke), assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz), who’s going through a bit of a rough patch. Heather is engaged in a highly publicized breakup with a fellow celebrity, Devin (Reeve Carney), and wants to back out of her next project, a film whose hotheaded director, Greg (Nelson Franklin), has been invested in for years. She wants, it seems, nothing more than to disappear. “I don’t want to do anything for a while,” she confesses to Jill in the front seat of a car outside pizza joint Casa Bianca. These existential quandaries combine to inspire one of those never-ending nights for Heather: An old-fashioned leads to a drink at Jill’s place leads to K-town karaoke leads to Chinese food out of the carton and lying-awake ruminations on Scream and life and ambition. In the morning, Heather is found dead in Devin’s magisterial mansion from five gunshot wounds. Jill — who spent all night with her, and whose gun is at the crime scene — emerges as the lead suspect for Detective Edward Ahn (John Cho, his mane as opulent as ever). In response, the innocent Jill dyes her hair and sets out to crack the case herself.
As in Cold Weather, Katz incites suspense not through typical crime-genre conventions but through uncanny, off-kilter details and contradictions that create a general aura of uncertainty. Jill, for instance, is introduced in the glow of her smartphone screen, and yet still uses the stopwatch on her wrist to set her alarm every morning. Michelle Forbes, in a sharp one-scene performance as a hard-charging publicist, delivers to Jill this confounding compliment: “Look, I know you and I kind of hate each other, but I actually quite like you.” And Cho, in his minor role, enlivens the detective with hilariously enigmatic expressions of intimidation, as when, in a diner-set discussion, he scoffs at Jill, “Do whatever makes you happy,” after she commits the unthinkable crime of not wanting to drink the coffee he has ordered her. These mysterious, balance-threatening elements keep the tension at a healthy medium boil. Whenever Jill seems on the verge of facing legitimate peril, Katz drops in a light touch of reassurance: a cameo by an awkwardly friendly bartender, a comic argument between Jill and Greg that transpires in playfully meta terminology.
But for all the sharp-witted conversations and pinpoint performances, Gemini most impresses as a piece of clean, confident visual storytelling. Early two-person scenes excite in their staging. When Jill pours drinks for herself and Heather, the camera glides smoothly between kitchen and living room. But as Jill’s investigative journey takes her to more remote locales, the dialogue disappears and Jill becomes a determined, isolated figure in the frame. Standing outside a laundromat, she witnesses a pivotal piece of information on the television inside; she reads the news — and reacts to it. A police sedan trails Jill, who speeds away on a stolen motorcycle; she ducks into a darkened lot, lets the cop car pass and heads in the other direction. Unable to open the front door at a cabin in the woods, Jill spots a rock, turns it over and discovers a key. She spies on a hotel-room meeting through the slice of a closet door, Blue Velvet–style. Such passages find Katz relaying simple, compelling physical action in visually gripping and legible tableaux — and this is supposed to be the guy who invented mumblecore?