Gemini opens with an upside-down image of palm trees, silhouetted against the L.A. night sky and hanging from the top of the frame like portentous, spindly bats. A jazzy, synthy score kicks in, and the camera slowly swings around until things are right-side-up. Or are they? In Aaron Katz’s new thriller, something strange is afoot in la la land, and soon enough there will be a murder plot to untangle. But just as important is how sleek and sexy everything looks dappled in blue and purple glows. Don’t call Gemini a neo-noir—call it a neon-noir, a moody little slice of pulp fiction that ends up satisfying the eyes more than the mind.
Katz has dabbled in the genre before. His excellent 2011 dramedy Cold Weather was an extremely low-key mystery set in Portland, Oregon, where a grad-school washout and part-time DJ went on a search for a missing person. Gemini is a bit more high-stakes than that, and it’s a far more burnished product than Katz’s earlier work (which had a foot in the low-budget mumblecore movement). The film is eye-catching, as is the talented cast, which includes Lola Kirke, John Cho, and Zoe Kravitz. But Gemini never seems quite interested enough in its own story to be memorable, as dazzling as it looks.
The plot follows Jill LeBeau (Kirke), an assistant and loyal pal to Hollywood starlet Heather Anderson (Kravitz). Heather is embroiled in major drama both personal and professional—she’s dating a woman but trying to keep her sexuality secret, and she’s dropping out of a big project, which has earned her a lot of industry ire. There seem to be threats around every corner, including a creepy fan who approaches Jill and Heather at a diner, and an irate producer on the phone who (perhaps jokingly) threatens to kill the actress for skipping out on a job.
So, when Heather shows up dead in her home, it’s hard to know who to blame, and Jill doesn’t help matters by beginning to behave extremely erratically. Edward Ahn, the detective assigned to the case (Cho), figures the assistant for a prime suspect, and so Gemini turns into an understated chase movie as well as a whodunit potboiler, with the enigmatic Jill working to both evade the law and discover the truth behind her best friend’s death. For about an hour of Gemini’s brisk 93-minute running time, I was mostly hooked. But as things got solved, I rapidly lost interest.
Kirke is wonderfully cast as the cagey center of the film. She’s uniquely skilled, it seems, at playing somewhat furtive observer types, given her equally impressive work in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. Kirke does well to not let the viewer entirely in on Jill’s thought process as things go from bad to worse, keeping the audience on her side without quite explaining what’s going on. As the cop on her tail, Cho is perfectly smoldering (a role he doesn’t get to play often enough). Perhaps best of all, Katz dares to stage much of his action in the daytime, largely avoiding the shadows-and-fog noir pastiche he could so easily play into.
It’s great to drink in the look of Gemini, but anytime Katz actually has to move the mystery along, things start to fall flat. The various grumpy lowlifes that Jill has to talk to (played by Nelson Franklin, Reeve Carney, and Greta Lee among others) are dull stock parodies of Hollywood hangers-on. A final showdown at a house in the Hollywood Hills isn’t tense enough to properly work as a set-piece, and thus the film’s final revelations feel like a bit of a shrug.
Gemini has just enough style to never truly grate—more than one can say about most indie releases, which usually feature way too much polish or not nearly enough. Keegan DeWitt’s score is beautifully morose, Andrew Reed’s cinematography is gorgeous and hazy, and the wardrobes are an ideal blend of contemporary and vintage (down to Jill’s pastel shirts and high-waisted pants). Taken as a whole, Gemini is a decent little thriller that’s been spruced up by a very impressive Instagram filter; but it’s all in service of a genre exercise that never quite hits its mark.