Writer/Director duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have, in the span of only seven years and four movies, established their own unique brand of filmmaking, playing with different genres, cosmic entities, and the concept of time without ever losing sight of the core relationships that are always at the center of their films. Moorhead and Benson seem fascinated by the concept of time, the fear of it passing, and our inability to control or escape it. Now with their fourth feature collaboration, Synchronic, the duo gives us their most mainstream-friendly movie to date, but one that nonetheless feels like their most grounded and emotionally charged work. And of course, it also explores some sci-fi shenanigans.
If there's one thing you can expect from a Moorhead/Benson joint besides a genre-mashing exploration of time, it's a core duo at the center of the story. The 2013 low-budget horror movie Resolution had a long-lasting yet estranged friendship, 2014's Spring had a new romantic relationship, and last year's thriller The Endless had two brothers as the protagonists. This time, in Synchronic, it's friends and work partners Steven (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), two paramedics working in New Orleans who one day are called to a scene that looks like a typical overdose--except for the guy stabbed with an ancient-looking sword. The only clue is the wrapper for a synthetic designer drug called Synchronic. As more bizarre and inexplicable deaths begin to happen, and Dennis's teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing after trying the drug, Steven and Dennis find themselves personally involved with the mystery.
It takes a while before Synchronic fully enters into cosmic sci-fi territory, which may lose some viewers hoping for a full-blown time travel movie. But by the time it finally happens, you'll be fully invested in Dennis and Steven's dynamic. Dornan and Mackie have great on-screen chemistry, and the duo manage to convey a nuanced relationship with small touches like a few silent glances. The problem comes when Mackie's Steven gets a terrible piece of news that he chooses to hide from Dennis, and Brianna's disappearance has Dennis focused on saving his family. This causes the pair to split apart for most of the movie's second half, each dealing with their own issue alone. Sadly, the movie chooses to focus on Steven's journey over Dennis's, leaving Dornan's character feeling like an afterthought.
That being said, Mackie more than steps up to the task of serving as the emotional anchor of the movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe star effortlessly conveys the drama of the story in his coping with his terrible news, while also keeping the mind-melting hard sci-fi exposition from overwhelming the audience. It's this last part that leads to a high-concept third act that feels ripe for a larger franchise.
Credited as the screenwriter, Justin Benson isn't a stranger to writing well-developed characters or to slowly revealing a grander story little by little, and Synchronic shows exactly why he and Aaron Moorhead work so well together. Benson forgoes lengthy monologues to exploit the actors' performances, instead letting the drama unfold through action and behavior. This is aided by Moorhead's excellent eye for detail in his cinematography, which makes the audience feel like they're a passenger on a speeding train with no power to stop it. For example, an early scene where Dennis and Steven go to a crime scene is shot using an apparent single long take, turning the camera into an ethereal, floating specter, ominously following Dennis and Steven as if watching its next victims.
While it's difficult to talk about this movie without spoiling its many surprising twists, it is fair to say that Synchronic takes us to a variety of different scenarios and set pieces. There's a reason Synchronic takes place in New Orleans, as the city has a historic and intricate connection to death and the macabre, which allows the filmmaking duo to flex their horror muscles and explore the historical terrors of the city that still resonate today.
During a Q&A following the movie's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmakers talked about waiting years to tell this story due to budget constraints. Synchronic is the pair's most accessible film to date, and it shows that they are fully deserving of working with a big budget. Moorhead and Benson take us to incredible and fantastical locations, and they do so without losing sight of the film's emotional core.
Some films about time or time travel make the past look pristine and perfect compared to our dark and gritty present. Synchronic is not interested in that, but instead tells a poignant message about clinging to life and making the most of it. This is a sci-fi film that will twist your mind as it pulls at your heartstrings.