VOD film review: Synchronic
James R | On 29, Jan 2021
Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan
“The past sucks, man.” That’s Steve (Anthony Mackie) in Synchronic, a film about confronting what’s gone before and learning to value the present. That the sci-fi thriller’s central message can be summed up in an entertaining, throwaway quip is testament to this being a Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead joint – the latest from a filmmaking duo who can balance profound philosophy and genre flourishes with the kind of ambition and imagination that makes them some of the most exciting and intriguing storytellers around.
Synchronic follows Steve and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), a pair of paramedics who find themselves bewildered by a spate of horrific and downright bizarre deaths in New Orleans. What connects them, they discover, is the titular designer drug, which has left a trail of bodies in its wake, all in increasingly unusual circumstances. When Dennis’ daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), vanishes after popping a pill herself, Steve takes drastic action and decides to try the drug himself – and goes on a mind-bending trip to try and make sure she’s safe.
Benson and Moorhead are in their element here, as they practically break the laws of physics to overcome their limited budget and produce some of their most astonishing visuals to date. Their micro-budget ingenuity plays out like the indie counterpart to Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, confidently escaping blockbusting conventions to craft something unusual and intimate.
Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan are key to that success, and their brotherly relationship rings with sincerity from start to finish. Dornan’s frazzled family man whose family is slipping away from him is convincingly downbeat and scraggly, even as he tries to be a rock and support Steve, a man with an incurable tumour whose existence is now a blur of one-night stands and alcohol. Neither man can see much potential in their timelines, but their bond is a steadfast constant that doesn’t change.
Benson’s script leans into that notion of trying to escape the chronological inevitability of the universe, the idea that disappearing into a substance-fuelled haze might stop everything moving forward just for a few minutes. The script builds on that central metaphor to meditate not just on personal memories but on humanity’s overall history, one of conflict and hatred that Steve, in particular, is still navigating the consequences of today. Mackie clearly relishes having a complex lead role that lets him show how much heart he can bring as well as his Marvel-sized charisma, but before the screenplay can tackle the subject of racial prejudice in depth, it’s already jumping ahead to the next idea.
That’s the kind of tempo you can expect from Synchronic, a film that daringly uses its genre trappings to deal with notions of suffering and sacrifice, but also fits in alligators, snakes, conquistadors and more along the way. Like an excited vinyl record, it skips from one track to the next without the consistent beat of their 2014 masterpiece Spring – the storytelling is so bold, even sprinkling humour amid the pathos, that it sometimes threatens to overshadow the characters. But Synchronic’s fast-paced tune never loses its fascinating rhythm; this piece is unlike anything else you’ll see this year, an ultimately moving tale of reconciling with one’s own future to bring hope to someone else’s. The result will be spinning round your head for days, like a record never reaching the end of its groove.