A satisfying mystery usually involves more engagement from various puzzle pieces than the way they fit together, and Aaron Katz’s playful L.A. neo-noir “Gemini” falls right into that tradition. It pits the elements of a scrappy whodunit against the backdrop of film industry satire, keeps us guessing the whole way through, and arrives at a solution that’s beside the point. Revisiting the genre innovations of his 2010 feature “Cold Weather,” Katz delivers another minimalist addition to the canon of shaggy dog detective stories stretching back to “The Long Goodbye,” filtered through his own indelible poetic gaze.
At first glance, Katz’s movies are slight character studies with little to offer beyond endearing situational humor and a complimentary atmosphere. His first two features, “Dance Party, USA” and “Quiet City,” were delicate mood pieces in which plot took a backseat to a handful of emotionally-charged exchanges. With “Cold Weather,” Katz blossomed into a singular visionary able to blend familiar tropes with own discursive style; “Land Ho!” (co-directed by Martha Stephens) continued that trend, turning the peculiar tale of two aging retirees into a disarmingly sweet road trip comedy. “Gemini” finds him applying that talent to Hollywood, peppering a tonally complex tale with clever misdirection and a wry satiric outlook on the vapidity of the industry itself.
At its center is a charming two-hander that — at least in its first act — has the makings of a gender-swapped episode of “Entourage.” Jaded movie star Heather (Zoë Kravitz) annoys the hell out of her devout assistant Jill (Lola Kirke), coping with the actress as she abruptly decides to ignore desperate calls from her agent and drop out of a major project. Over the course of a meandering evening, they evade the eerie advances of an affectionate fan at a diner, engage in a wild karaoke session, and keep the details of Heather’s romantic life under wraps. So far, so straightforward — until a sudden dark twist arrives 30 minutes in, and every detail of that first act becomes a clue.
As with the male protagonist in “Cold Weather,” the seemingly typical Jill suddenly becomes a latter-day investigator, picking through the pieces of a thorny mystery that involves the murky fate of her longtime friend. Changing her appearance while evading detection by the law, Jill bounces between various other obsessive film industry figures as the questions keep piling up.
But they’re also irrelevant to the movie’s careful modulation of mood. When Jill must contend with the advances of a nosy detective (a deadpan John Cho), his appearance generates suspense even though in retrospect Jill has nothing to worry about. Like the ominous police officer who materializes in “Psycho,” Cho’s inquisitive character has a symbolic quality, epitomizing Jill’s mounting insecurities and leaving open the possibility that the strange drama might be an extension of her anxious outlook. Katz, whose minimal output suggests he’s had his fair share of struggles with the commercial industry, displays a keen eye for the paradoxes of the L.A. scene, pitting its sun-soaked landscape and exuberant high society figures against a quiet, nagging sense of dislocation.
Working with name actors for the first time, Katz proves that his attention to detail extends to veterans: Kirke, best known for her chatty performance in “Mistress America,” matches it here with an absorbing turn as a young woman engaged in a ludicrous plot even as her inner turmoil remains wholly believable. Kravitz is an ideal foil, her carefree attitude constantly challenging Jill to let her guard down. In the midst of a big problem with potentially serious repercussions, she tells Jill, “You worry too much.” Throughout “Gemini,” Katz seems to be telling obsessive viewers the same thing: Overthink every plot detail and the plot holes are gaping; embrace it as a buddy movie about struggling through the industry and it becomes a far more rewarding portrait. Many of the nuances of performance and direction open up on a second viewing, but they have little to do with the specifics of the resolution.
Still, there’s no point in spoiling it here: The nature of Heather’s fate, and the way Jill ultimately decides to process it, lead to a great punchline that brings the mounting tension between the characters to a state of completion.
All of which is to say that “Gemini” resists easy categorization, evades tidy plot points and sometimes lead to frustrating dead ends. But it’s an absorbing world defined by open-ended possibilities, a kind of comedic psychological thriller in which the thrills exist in air quotes. The world is dripping with intrigue: Katz’s regular cinematographer Andrew Reed careens from the blue hues of late night bars to the roomy interiors of swanky Hollywood abodes, while Keegan DeWitt’s pensive score builds up the mounting uncertainties at every turn.
It doesn’t always arrive at an exciting direction, but it’s an intoxicating journey the whole way through. Katz has yet to fully master the art of total payoff, but that’s part of what makes his approach so welcome. Even as “Gemini” exists within the commercial business of making movies, it exists outside of those restrictions.
“Gemini” premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. Sony has worldwide rights and is selling it for U.S. distribution.