Synopsis – Two New Orleans paramedics’ lives are ripped apart after they encounter a series of horrific deaths linked to a designer drug with bizarre, otherworldly effects.
My Take – Ever since they marked their debut with Resolution (2012), Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have gained much deserved traction for being two of the most interesting filmmakers out there who continue to entertain fans of both horror and sci-fi with creative and stimulating features. Features that are clever low-budget genre mashups albeit with thematically-rich stories that always succeed in keeping their audience on its toes.
With every releasing following, Spring (2014) and Endless (2017), the filmmakers have without a doubt polished their skills on a better level. While larger studios, on a general term, seemingly more interested in dishing out disposable science fiction thrillers and hokey premises with shaggy effects, both Benson and Moorhead, have managed to remain stifled by any intervention, making their fourth film, another mind-bending exploration of time and what makes us human.
Though their latest has bigger names and a slightly bigger budget, they maintain their same storytelling style that smoothly combines fantasy, horror and comedy. And with a larger budget this time, they are able express their mind-bending stories to a greater level, which as captivating and bizarre as any of their earlier work, and just as perfectly character-driven.
While the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it is still an absolute joy to watch and does not hold one back from enjoying the plot by wondering about the specific mechanics of the genre. Proving once again that both Benson and Moorhead are efficient and delicate directors, who are determined to blow your mind and keep independent film-making scene alive and well.
Set in New Orleans, the story follows Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), long best friends and paramedics, who have seen some seriously strange things working the night shift. But there’s a new phenomenon on the streets, which makes their regular run-ins quite lame in comparison, a designer drug called Synchronic, a synthetic compound that reduces one user to ashes and another into a grisly pile of dismembered limbs at the bottom of a motel elevator shaft.
However things get further complicated when Brianna (Ally Ioannides), Dennis’ 18-year-old daughter, vanishes completely after taking a dose of Synchronic at a party, and Steve discovers the drug’s astonishing time-bending possibilities.
The story itself is unique in a general sense. But within the realms of the sub-genre that it plays into, it can seem somewhat typical if you follow those types of films. However, the approach taken to portray the story is quite unique. The entire structure of this film is admirably tight, as director Benson and Moorhead continuously add extra constraints to further heighten the tension and build genuine suspense.
The film is at its most confident when it moves to the familiar territory of mind-bending visuals and high concepts, but it is also a deeply melancholic affair, which may seem like a drag for some, however, it is powerful enough to reel in a new audience and act as a guaranteed treat for their already established fans.
Despite the sci fi elements the recurring themes in the pair’s films have always been relationships and connections, here too, the film focus on a disconnected Steve, who has retained one friendship as his sole link to humanity, keeping everyone else at a surly remove. The tabs of designer drug that he takes as part of his hunt send him on a spiral that seems ever further away from the everyday, but director Benson and Moorhead‘s deep humanity always links the story back to the premise that has governed their work, that spark of gratitude for what we have now. Though the narrative feels a little imbalanced, they eventually land on some pretty compelling stuff by the film’s emotional, last frame.
However, the best sequences are the ones where Steve tests out drug’s effects. These moments are highly enjoyable and Ariel Vida’s wonderful production design really bring the different eras Steve ends up in alive. The past is cool to look at, but deadly to interact with, and as a Black man, Steve is in double trouble pretty much wherever in time he lands.
This puts a legitimately fresh spin on a much overused topic, and Mackie packs a ton of film-star charisma into long stretches where he’s basically the only character on screen.
The best time-travel stories recognize that they only have to obey the rules they set up for themselves, and the film sets up some nifty constraints that make for natural sources of tension. You can’t really control how far you travel back, save for specific locations tying you back to specific time periods. You have to be in that exact spot, too, in order to travel back.
Here, directors Benson and Moorhead make great use of these limitations to craft some impeccably-staged trips to the past. Despite the logical impossibility, it’s a unique spin on the time-travel conceit, unrelated to the standard film rules imposed on the subject, where altering the past changes the future. Giving any more details would be me divulging too much, but it’s a tremendously rewarding experience.
Benson‘s script is also slyly funny, though not in the laugh-out-loud kind of way, but it’s guaranteed to get a few hearty chuckles. Where the writing doesn’t fare quite as well is its inclusion of racial elements like Steve notes that the area he lives in has “a shitty response time” from the authorities after discovering a stranger in his house in the middle of the night, and an early scene has a police officer pull a gun on Steve as he is working on a patient but not wearing his uniform, raising the officer’s suspicions. These elements constantly feel like an afterthought, even if they are correct in their observations.
Performance wise, both Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan are fantastic. Mackie is an actor with plenty of talent, potential and charm, who has been playing second fiddle for years now, but here he is able to branch out, acquits himself well, too, bringing his natural blend of charisma and steely-eyed intensity to the role.
He also shares great chemistry with Dornan, who is equally as good but his story doesn’t resonate quite as strongly as Mackie’s does. Dennis comes across as arrogant and selfish, but much is saved by the easy banter between the two actors. Ultimately his character simply doesn’t have as much to do, but Dornan is believable as the struggling father in a crisis of his own. In other roles, Ally Ioannides and Katie Aselton are also good. On the whole, ‘Synchronic’ is a refreshingly heartfelt time-travel thriller that both smart and inventive.
Rated – R
Run Time – 102 minutes