Aaron Katz’s latest writer-director venture Gemini begins with one of cinema’s most recognizable visual cues for the inescapable feeling of “something’s not quite right”: an upside-down shot. Immediately, as we look upon the palm trees silhouetted against a darkened dusk sky, we are drawn to the notion that something, whatever tangible or philosophical something that may be, is being or will be inverted or perverted throughout the course of the narrative telling us what the film is about aside from plot. Eventually, said undercurrent will ideally culminate and may even fully reveal itself in the film’s final shot, summarizing everything it has been building toward thematically.
Had one separated Gemini’s opening and final shots, examining them in and of themselves, their relationship to one another and how they connect to the space in between, one could discern what Katz’s film is possibly trying to show us. The movie ends with a simple long shot that slowly, smoothly pans from the characters to a master shot view of the Los Angeles cityscape and skyline, where it lingers for a few seconds and then steadily zooms in as credits play over top. Connecting this to the upside-down palm trees, themselves in upright form a popular signifier for Hollywood and thus celebrity, wealth and status, we can gather that in conjunction with the film’s neo-noir framework, Katz relays a certain cynical view of Hollywood, the film industry and its various personalities.
Except, it’s particular viewpoint here feels vaguely superficial; not just that the perhaps intentionally slight narrative often gives the impression such criticisms are being ignored for other potential themes, but also because it’s a message that’s as worn out as the admittedly succulent, modern minimalist-style genre aesthetic it adopts. Whatever proximity to celebrity we think we have is ultimately a fallacy; that in truth we aren’t as in touch with who they are as we delude ourselves into thinking. Not only is this grand thesis not nearly as thought-provoking as Katz tries to play it, it appeared in modern cinema as recently as last summer’s Ingrid Goes West – and done more potently, as well, though that may be mostly due to a difference in genre.
There are the occasional germs of ideas that success and total immersion in Tinseltown, from both a personal and business sense, is unattainable to most and that it can be so swiftly swiped, and that finding one’s identity in the wake of unspeakably life-altering tragedy is as much of a mystery as your standard, well, mystery, but there isn’t enough follow through on either to suggest Katz had any intention of including them in the proceedings in a meaningful way, if at all. Instead, we’re simply left with the previously mentioned singular subtext, and its repetition and reapplication here makes the second and third acts feel disappointingly hollow and the film itself devoid of true meaning – especially since it’s a conclusion it seemingly comes to halfway through the first act.
And so, we wander through the narrative with Lola Kirke’s Jill as she searches for Heather’s (Zoë Kravitz) murderer, looking for our own mystery’s finality as to what the movie is about, if it’s about anything. Thankfully, the film itself, regardless of meaning, keeps us relatively engaged with style and genre grace, if not substance. The first act itself, stretching a little longer than a traditional three-act structure calls for, though the delayed inciting incident partially ensures it’s a beat that connects in spite of its expectedness, is almost unassailably perfect not just in what it suggests thematically, but also in establishing place, tone, characters and their relationships making sure there’s something still to latch onto further down the stretch.
Composer Keegan DeWitt’s fusion of ethereal, but poppy synths and jazz club horns may resolutely alert us to Gemini’s neo-noir genre identity, of an old genre meeting a modern era, but it’s Andrew Reed’s cinematography and movement as well as Katz’s assured direction that keeps us grounded. The most important thing both filmmakers’ work does is using framing, editing, depth of field and setting to pose a complex relationship between Jill and Heather that both goes beyond the typical employer-employee boundaries, and yet can’t help but feel constricted by that professional code. We see differences in costume and living situation signaling a status difference, the latter shown through a pair of immaculate long takes, but most intriguing is how both characters often don’t occupy the same shots.
Not to mention when they do, one is intentionally obfuscated to keep focus on the other. There is a palpable distance between the two that’s difficult to reckon with given Kirke and Kravitz’s genuine seeming interplay and chemistry, and it suggests one particularly intriguing idea that may not get fully fleshed out past the inciting incident, but nonetheless creates even greater dimension to their dynamic and even subtly Jill’s further along in the story. Specifically, whereas Ingrid Goes West examines the unreciprocated adoration or even validation felt by normal folks toward their celebrity idols, Gemini tackles the inverse of that, where Heather seems more committed to a platonic friendship ideal than her assistant, though Jill may consider herself a sincere companion.
It’s a thought that may go largely missing until the denouement, but it nonetheless colors various happenings and other relationships Jill experiences with colleagues throughout the rest of the plot. And though the remainder of the film additionally misses the complexity of its opening half hour, Katz’s storytelling is enough of a slow-burn that the film takes on a strangely atmospheric quality juxtaposed with its naturalism, but also generates enough momentum toward each successive revelation the story provides – even if it progresses in an archetypal ‘process of elimination’ sort of manner that usually hinders audience engagement by telegraphing the twist. And in its own right, said twist is a compelling one that plays itself straight to maintain a darkly realistic air the film itself so adeptly doesn’t overplay.
Gemini, however, is no less frustrating an experience despite the technical facets that keep it an involving, if straightforward tale of sleuthing. Perhaps there’s no use in getting too upset about seemingly apparent ideas that weren’t intentional or otherwise weren’t there, as it’s common and easy for any of us to project our own ideas upon what a narrative is trying to tell us rather that extract them organically from what we’re shown, but again, the fact that its trite overarching observation comes at the expense of other more interesting ideas is exactly the problem. Is this a movie worth revisiting and even enjoying? Absolutely. Would there be anything more to gain or realize from watching it again? That I cannot guarantee.