Is "Gemini" the Stylish Neo-Noir We Hoped For or Does It Misfire?
Two Fandor staff writers discuss their views on Aaron Katz's new movie.
The premiere of Aaron Katz’s neo-noir Gemini deeply intrigued us here at the Fandor Offices. The moody and stylish trailer combined with our love for Katz’s previous work had us hopping online to pre-order tickets. Here, Fandor staff writers, Joaquin Lowe and Matt Maraynes sit down to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the movie.
Warning: There may be potential spoilers ahead.
Joaquin Lowe: The first thing that drew me to this movie was that it has been described as a “neo-noir.” But after watching it, while I felt Katz nailed the aesthetic, making the movie feel both hyper-modern and classically cool, do you feel like the movie fits into the noir genre?
Matt Maraynes: It's film noir with a contemporary spin. It takes the bullet points of what constitutes "original" film noir (like, say, darkness, shadows, and moral ambiguity) and funnels them through the prism of a modern story. Gemini tries hard to do that, and partially succeeds. It opens on these dizzying, inverted shots of palm trees and a fluorescent Los Angeles night, and spins an Instagram-infused murder mystery. The marketing is spot-on there, but I'm concerned that it's ultimately a reflection of my main issue with the film: a preoccupation with style over substance (and by substance, I mean story). I've read some reviews that really praise the script, though. Do you think the story complemented its style? Where should we draw the line in balancing the two?
JL: That's interesting. Because I suppose I had problems with the substance—or story—of the movie as well. In discussing this with you a bit already, I, too, used the word "preoccupation" to describe the movie's focus on substance, but I think maybe that’s a mischaracterization. Because I think it's that “substance” that is really the film's main focus. There are long, establishing shots on the interior of buildings and on cars and motorcycles. This feels more like commentary than a preoccupation. Now, to answer your question, I do think the story complemented the style. The question is, do those two things combine to make an interesting movie? If the commentary is simply to observe the vapid nature of the Hollywood scene, is that interesting enough to carry the audience through the movie?
MM: Potentially, but I think the movie strays from what could be more interesting insights. That focus on L.A. architecture, and those cars and motorcycles, is certainly supplemented by a host of vapid Hollywood tropes (a narcissistic musician ex-boyfriend, neurotic film director, and superficial talent agent, for example), but what about the nuanced and complicated relationship between Jill and Heather? I thought the first third of the movie painted a really interesting portrait of an actress/assistant relationship—it's certainly a far cry from Swimming With Sharks.
JL: If what you're saying is that the relationship between Jill and Heather is the most interesting thing about this movie, I agree with you. But it's also the unfortunate weakness of the movie, because once Heather is removed from the equation, we are cut-off from further insight into that relationship. Jill's investigation into Heather's murder could have been a way for Katz to uncover deeper themes in their relationship, but we hardly learn anything new during that investigation. This gave me the feeling that Gemini was a pretty interesting first act, but it didn't feel like "the story." I'll expand on that in a second, but I'm interested in if you had that same feeling.
MM: Unfortunately, I did walk away with the same feeling. Without giving away any significant plot details, I'll just say that the bulk of the film (that is, Jill's investigation) felt a bit flimsy. The initial depth of that relationship dissipated into a plot that tried hard to be a compelling “whodunnit,” at the expense of legitimate character development. When that mystery unfolded and concluded in an underwhelming way, I was left craving the authenticity that really defined the beginning of the film. It makes me wonder about an alternative way of writing the story, one where Jill's motivation is less about solving the murder and more about coping with and reflecting upon her friend's death. I think Katz could have done something like that and still maintain a sense of mystery, as Jill perhaps discovered more elements of Heather's life that were previously hidden. That kind of approach might have, inadvertently, accentuated the noir qualities. It would have made the film's style a better complement to the story. As it stands, in the "style over substance" conversation, the lackluster plot feels incongruous with the heavy style. What did you feel the story was?
JL: I think the story, boiled down, is one of power dynamics. By the end, the characters undergo a sea change when it comes to who holds the power. The nature of the relationship between Jill and Heather is clarified when each of them realize who is really dependent on whom. This is the heart of the "noir" theme in the film—that their relationship isn't romantic or familial or even one of care. It's more like, "What have you done for me lately,” and “How can you help me achieve what I want?" regardless of how it impacts the other person. But the shift is also, for me, too subtle to be satisfying. That's why I think it makes for a good first act, but not for the premise of an entire movie. I want to know how this change in personal dynamics influences these characters going forward, because it's at that point where I can foresee real tension in their relationship that may lead to more interesting consequences.
MM: That solidifies my overarching sense that the film is incomplete. There's the engaging first act and a sliver of intrigue at the end (again, spoilers withheld), but the bulk of the second and third acts underutilize the movie's most interesting themes (like the power dynamics you mentioned). There are pillars in the introduction and conclusion, but the bulk feels like too much of an attempt at trying to write a mystery with a twist, instead of focusing on the film's initial strengths. That "trying" made the plot more contrived than organic, which, again, detracted from its overall emotional punch. It's certainly a testament to Katz, though, along with his cinematographer Andrew Reed and composer Keegan DeWitt, that something about the film still lingers. I can still feel those fluorescent hues and ghostly shadows, and the score's simultaneously ominous and alluring tone. In that sense, I suppose Gemini is another reminder that all productions are going to be exercises in imperfection; whether or not they land is ultimately a matter of how much imperfection the viewer is willing to tolerate. Here, there was too much missing for me to truly get onboard.