Queering the Whodunit

Lola Kirke is a delight as a gal Friday turned gumshoe. | NEON

Sleek and smart, “Gemini,” written and directed by Aaron Katz, is a delicious slow-burn mystery.

Set in and around the film world in Los Angeles, the story opens with Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz), a successful actress, backing out of a role in a major motion picture. When her personal assistant, Jill (Lola Kirke), breaks the news to Greg (Nelson Franklin), who is involved with the production, he indicates he’d like to murder Heather.

Heather has also just broken up with her boyfriend, Devin (Reeve Carney). This prompts someone to ask Heather if she is now romantically involved with Tracy (Greta Lee), a question that may be uncomfortably close to the truth. When Heather and Jill meet up with Tracy later the same night, someone may have taken a photo of Heather and Tracy kissing.

Aaron Katz playfully pays homage to, subverts murder genre

Heather is suitably shaken by all of the evening’s drama, and this prompts her to ask Jill if she can borrow her .22 snub nose, explaining she is afraid of all the crazy people who are mad at her.

“I’m not going to use it,” she insists, and Jill reluctantly agrees.

It’s no surprise that the gun goes off in the first third of “Gemini.” A dead body is discovered, and Jill, whose fingerprints are on the weapon, is a suspect in the crime. A detective, Edward Ahn (John Cho), investigates the case and keeps tabs on Jill, who is determined to elude the authorities and try to puzzle out the whodunit before it is too late.

The best aspect of “Gemini” is how this cool and clever thriller unfolds. Katz provides a juicy set-up and some prime suspects, but he flips the typical script a bit in ways that are best left for viewers to discover.

Acting as a Nancy Drew, Jill, in disguise, meets up with Greg who thinks about the murder like a screenwriter, discussing the killer’s motive, opportunity, and capacity. Here Katz goes meta, but he also plays with detective story tropes by having Jill sneak into hotel rooms and overhear two characters talk about alibis and lying to the police. She also engages in a low-key yet still suspenseful chase scene.

Just as Katz did with his impressive 2010 mystery, “Cold Weather,” he pays homage to the crime genre but also subverts it. “Gemini” is wisely not about whodunit; it is really about something else entirely. It would spoil the many pleasures of this alluring film to discuss that in greater detail, but what can be told is that the film plants enough clues for viewers who think about them carefully that — after the credits roll — they will reveal an extra dimension to the story.

The dialogue in the film is witty and as crisp as the stylish cinematography. Katz is very precise in both his writing and his visuals. All of the characters choose and speak their words deliberately — even when they use the word “murder.” One of the film’s best lines has a character admitting, with deadpan sincerity, “Look, I know you and I kind of hate each other, but I actually quite like you.”

The filmmaker also uses lighting and filters (especially blue) to comment on the characters’ all too cool emotions. The wily camerawork includes a particularly nifty scene where two characters in conversation become engaged with a third character, and suddenly, the story pivots and heads off in a new direction. Such moments are amusing but they also keep viewers off guard and on tenterhooks as the byzantine plot unspools.

The film’s lesbian content is largely pushed into the background because of the murder, but it still has a ripple effect on the story. What exactly is the relationship between Heather and Tracy? And is Jill perhaps in love with or jealous of either of these women? Katz keeps things ambiguous, letting viewers fill in the blanks, a casual approach that keeps “Gemini” engrossing.

As Jill, Kirke makes an appealing heroine. She is obviously smart — arguably too smart for her job, Detective Ahn notes. She provides the film with its moral center. When she engages in risky behavior, like snooping around, her likability makes viewers worry about her well-being. With Jill essentially a girl Friday turned gumshoe, it is a delight to watch her using her knowledge as a celebrity assistant to track down Heather’s ex. Kirke expresses a full gamut of emotions in the film, but she never over-emotes. A scene of her crying on the beach after a particularly difficult encounter makes her sympathetic, not weak.

In support, Kravitz injects the film with a buzzy energy, playing the movie star diva role with flair.

“Gemini” crackles from its opening scene of upside-down palm trees through its final twist. It doesn’t miss a beat.

GEMINI | Directed by Aaron Katz | Neon | Opens Mar. 30 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston at Mercer St. | angelikafilmcenter.com/nyc