This review contains what may be spoilers for the film Synchronic.
Synchronic is the fourth feature film from the writing-directing (and sometimes acting) team of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benso. Their previous independent efforts–Resolution (2012), Spring (2014) and The Endless (2017)–were all hybrids in one way or another of sci-fi and horror, leaning more toward one or the other, depending on the story that was at hand.
Synchronic extends the duo’s ambitions in terms of the scope of the story, its genre (still decidedly science fiction with horror overtones), and its casting. For the first time, the pair work with bankable Hollywood names. Meanwhile the storytelling and overall logic are as intelligent and thoughtful as ever, resulting in a film that may be modest in overall size but large in terms of its ideas and humanity.
One of the Avengers himself, Anthony Mackie, stars as Steve, a New Orleans paramedic who works the overnight shift alongside his best friend Dennis (Jamie Dornan). Steve is also close with Dennis’ wife Tara (Katie Aselton) and teen daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides), despite being resolutely single, perhaps alcoholic, and suddenly aware that he has an inoperable brain tumor and six weeks to live.
The two friends begin to respond to a series of bizarre incidents at work, discovering that the occurrences–which leave people dead or in psychotic mental states–are somehow tied to a new designer drug called Synchronic. When Brianna then also disappears after possibly taking the drug, Steve decides to find out exactly where Synchronic comes from and what it does … propelling him on a reality-shattering journey. Because as it turns out, Synchronic affects the pineal gland in the brain and allows users to travel backwards in time, not that they can control where they end up.
The two chief aspects of Synchronic that make it work so well as science fiction and just as marvelously entertaining filmmaking are the overall correctness of the story at hand and the compassion that flows throughout the tale and its characters. Moorhead and Benson have addressed the themes of addiction and reality-bending concepts in all three of their previous features, but they mesh them together seamlessly here. Just as addiction is a disease that the victim may think they can control but actually can’t, time is the same: we try everything we can to master the flow of our lives and the time we spend living them, but in the end we just hurtle along helplessly like leaves on a fast-flowing stream.
What Synchronic also shows us is that escaping from real life–even through the extreme of time travel–is really no escape at all. Life is random, dangerous, and unkempt in nearly every time period the movie explores, full of violence and greed and the occasional act of kindness, and it is ultimately up to us to take what small actions we can to somehow make existence just a little bit less cruel, no matter where or when we are.
These are big ideas, but Moorhead and Benson communicate them in such effortless fashion that there is hardly a moment in Synchronic that doesn’t feel like it belongs. The filmmakers are also aided this time by their two leads. Dornan shows more of the kind of depth denied him in the Fifty Shades trilogy while Mackie, always a formidable screen presence even when playing second fiddle to Captain America, depicts a range of melancholy, empathy, and even a bracing touch of self-loathing. It makes Steve a more complex character than a lot of other entries in this genre would attempt.
Sadly, Moorhead and Benson (the latter gets sole screenwriting credit, as on all their movies) give Aselton the underwritten role of the frantic wife, though they score somewhat better with Ioannides as Brianna, whose yearning to back away from the tension in her parents’ marriage leads her down the dark path to Synchronic. With such a small cast (the movie is essentially a two-hander, with Mackie doing a lot of it on his own), perhaps more could be done with its female characters, even if the story propels itself smoothly as it is.
Moorhead’s cinematography makes ample use of the New Orleans locations, creating a sense of decay and emptiness that ties remarkably well to the movie’s overall sense of lonely humans trying to hold onto something, anything in their lives before time yanks it away. The visual representation of the effects of Synchronic are also among the most original we’ve seen in this kind of tale in a while, and while they’re sparingly used, they’re even more admirable for a relatively low-budget production.
In some ways, Synchronic is a transitional film for Moorhead and Benson: working with Hollywood talent and more resources than they’ve had before, it may also be their most easily accessible and mainstream film to date. Yet if the mind-bending and moving Synchronic represents the future of mainstream genre filmmaking, we’re here for it. Hollywood may already be knocking at this duo’s door; if not, then it’s only a matter of time.
Synchronic opens in theaters and drive-ins now.