Photo: Neon Releasing

During the first 10 minutes of Gemini, the idea of someone killing actor Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz) comes up at least three times. Her ex-boyfriend, Devin (Reeve Carney), leaves a message with her assistant, Jill (Lola Kirke), screaming that he’s going to murder her. Her agent, Jamie (Michelle Forbes), is ready to kill her when she pulls out of a movie at the last minute. And when Heather herself beseeches Jill to help her with these situations, she uses similar language: “Don’t kill me, but…”

These moments range from casually colloquial to kind of scary, but none of them feel especially out of the ordinary, especially for a woman making her way in the world. Death threats, whether real or joking, are not the exclusive property of movie-world thrillers. Gemini may take place in a neon-lit Los Angeles and it may involve the semi-glamorous life of a beloved, beleaguered movie star, but the bluster and noise, and filtering thereof, is also Jill’s real life. It can take a while for someone to realize she’s stumbling through a neo-noir. It can take, say, Jill returning to Heather’s mansion after an early-morning meeting and finding, in place of her boss and de facto best friend, Heather’s lifeless body.

There may not be an American filmmaker more ready to observe that transition from quotidian real-life details to murder investigation than Aaron Katz. His earliest features, like Quiet City, infused mumblecore with some Linklater-ish casual poetry, and his wonderful Cold Weather made a deft mid-movie transition from aimless twentysomethings to twentysomethings with very particular (and possibly dangerous) goals when one of the characters decides to sleuth around for his missing ex-girlfriend. Gemini takes less time to move Jill from driving Heather around to answering questions from a detective (John Cho), who treats his suspect with forthright respect. He thinks Jill is smart. He also thinks that an overworked assistant snapping and killing her famous boss is an entirely plausible explanation for Heather’s death.

Jill and Heather do have the kind of lopsided, dysfunctional relationship that often makes for frenemies, if not necessarily murderers, something Katz and his actors establish with great economy in the movie’s opening moments. But they seem to care for each other, and Jill’s decision, possibly shellshocked and never articulated, to elude the police and try to get to the bottom of things on her own feels like some kind of dutiful friendship, in addition to self-preservation.

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Photo: Neon Releasing

Her investigation, such as it is, involves an improvised disguise, some light stalking, a chat with a disgruntled filmmaker (Nelson Franklin), and unexpected facility with a motorcycle. Katz’s movies don’t really have set pieces, even when the detective framework prompts it—or even when he seems to be teeing one up. A scene where Jill hides in a hotel room closet when the occupants return and interrupt her search for evidence is momentarily exciting, but not momentous. Plotwise, Gemini is not an especially complicated mystery. It’s more of a mysterious situation and accompanying mood piece.

But the mood it captures is a tricky, addictive one. Katz uses little of the traditional Southern California sun, even in broad daylight; through his lens, L.A. is brighter at night, when even locations as potentially dreary as a laundromat emanate a neon glow, refracting into gorgeous blues and silvers. Cold Weather nicely captured overcast Portland atmosphere; Gemini gives Katz the opportunity to indulge a more stylish take on the modern noir, somewhere between ominous and beautiful, using both classic noir images and more updated technology. Jill is first seen with her face reflected in a car’s side mirror at night; she’s next seen illuminated by the light of her smartphone.

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As visually appealing as much of Gemini is, it wouldn’t work nearly so well without Lola Kirke playing Jill. She’s very funny in the movie, but not because she’s doing shtick, or even because Katz writes a lot of zingers. Jill operates with a low-key irritation that stops just short of petulance, and cycles through a look-book’s worth of outfits (retro hipster, business casual, daffy eccentric, cool biker) with just the right balance of youthful confidence and identity-shifting hesitation. Kirke’s treatment of Jill’s seriousness, her workmanlike acceptance of jobs she may not want to do, makes her consistently (and paradoxically) amusing.

Katz threads in some implications about the nature of those identity shifts, and how the mystery of Heather may reflect the mystery over what, exactly, Jill wants to do with herself—what kind of person she wants to be. Some of this feels a little like a default setting, as though Katz weren’t quite over the growing pains that drove his earlier films (though his collaboration with Martha Stephens, Land Ho!, went after aging pains, instead). The upside is that his movies still feel exploratory but essentially believable. In some ways, Gemini is light, genre-inflected entertainment. Yet it has some nagging, almost ineffable weight, pulling it toward real-world decisions.