Gemini unfolds like a languid dream. The film's opening shot is of a row of distorted palm trees, inviting us into a neon-soaked Los Angeles. It follows Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke) as she tries to solve a brutal murder, but the soft visual palette rejects any hard-boiled crime trappings. Pulsing beats and low-synthesized hums drift in and out of the soundscape, and LA is at the forefront of every scene.
Aesthetically, the fifth feature from Portland native Aaron Katz looks like a love affair with his new city. Katz moved to LA six years ago, yet his new film feels like the creation of a lifelong SoCal resident. But according to Katz, Gemini's vision of his new city is filtered through his hometown.
"I love LA, and the weather's nice, but I feel like the only guy there who wishes it was 45 degrees and damp," says Katz.
Though it starts out as a pulpy neo-noir, Gemini eventually attempts a somewhat on-the-nose critique of the nature of celebrity. "This goes way beyond movies. Way beyond celebrity," says one of the characters in the movie's closing moments.
Portland hangs over most of Katz's filmography. It's the setting for Cold Weather, his 2010 indie mystery that helped establish Katz as a prominent filmmaking voice from the Pacific Northwest.
Gemini ditches that setting altogether, weaving satire and noir into a somber whodunit. The film took months of location shooting to capture Katz's new mystery playground, and the work comes through. But although it's set in a new city, Katz sticks with his go-to genre.
"I can't quite figure out why I love mysteries," Katz says. "I guess they give more space for exploring the human condition and whatnot. You get snapshots of what it's like to live in a city and hold relationships."
Those relationships are central to Gemini. The film tracks LeBeau (Lola Kirke), an assistant to a freewheeling Hollywood starlet named Heather (Zoë Kravitz). Heather uses Jill as a human shield from paparazzi, pissed-off producers and general bad decision-making. Still, their friendship bleeds out of the screen. In an early sequence that follows the pair through LA's drunken nightlife, Katz uses his considerable gifts behind the camera to sprinkle in a few intimate moments. He's helped enormously by Kirke and Kravitz; both imbue every line of dialogue with a vague mystique.
"When people watch this film, I hope that [the relationships] are truthful," Katz says. "This is a story with friendship at the center of it, and I don't want that to feel manufactured."
But it doesn't take long for violence to creep its way into the story. By the time a detective (John Cho) arrives on the scene, the film transforms from a portrait of female friendship—think Frances Ha mixed with Drive—to a morality tale about toxic celebrity culture.
Katz cites Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye as an influence, which Cinema 21 will screen alongside Gemini on April 5. It's an apt comparison. Like Goodbye, Gemini has a vague resolution that will probably leave some viewers scratching their heads.
Ultimately, Gemini succeeds more as an aesthetic exercise than as pure storytelling. According to Katz, that abstraction is a mark of his hometown, too. "[Portland] taught me how to write instinctually," Katz says. "Just to put words on paper and find some deeper part of yourself. If I had grown up anywhere else, I would probably be a different director."
SEE IT: Gemini with Aaron Katz in attendance is at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., cinema21.com. 7 pm Thursday-Friday, April 5-6. $9.25.