Back in 2012, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead put the film Resolution out into the world. And while it’s a rather excellent indie horror film in its own way, it has come to inform every one of their subsequent feature-length movies, with it connecting to the stupidly good monster movie Spring and the absolutely outstanding The Endless in indirect (in the case of the former) or direct (in the case of the latter) ways. That’s the fun thing about being a fan of theirs. You don’t know how their next film will connect to the previous ones until you watch it. It’s an uncommonly ambitious little independent cinematic universe consisting of excellent sci-fi horror stories with real heart.
Their latest film, Synchronic, is no different. I won’t spoil how it connects to what’s come before, but suffice it to say that fans who have been with them since the beginning are in for a treat when they realize what’s going on and how it ties in to the larger universe. But as its own independent work, it stands tall as a time travel story with a unique, interesting hook and surprising heart.
Anthony Mackie stars as Steve who, along with his long-time buddy Dennis (played by Jamie Dornan), spends his nights dealing with drug addicts, overdoses, and all kinds of other problematic characters as paramedics in New Orleans. A series of bizarre deaths and overdoses, where people show up either mentally disturbed or horribly mutilated, lead the pair down a strange path as they discover a new designer drug known as Synchronic is behind the odd incidents. Those who aren’t mentally shut down or killed by taking it sometimes disappear, and when Dennis’s daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing, Steve starts to investigate this new drug and its exact effects.
As with all their movies, the high concept betrays the emotional depth of the story on hand. For instance, The Endless is, on paper, a creepy cult movie, but the performances and script turn it into an honest exploration of cults, why people join them, and both their positive and negative effects. Meanwhile, Synchronic reads on paper as a sort of crime thriller with eventual science fiction elements, but it’s more of a character drama about trying to do the right thing before you’re gone.
We learn early on in the movie that Steve is suffering from a brain tumor, meaning that his already sort of aimless life of binge drinking and sleeping around reaches new depths. He is a sad character, and portrayed well by Mackie, but there’s also a small glimmer of hope in him as he tries to find Brianna. He doesn’t know how long he has left, and therefor decides that he has nothing to lose by using Synchronic himself to try and find out what happened to Brianna. He sees in Denis a life he wished he had, with a wife and kid that he loves, which is why he tries so hard to save her. He can’t have that life, but that doesn’t mean Dennis can’t still lead a happy existence.
It leads to a lot of interesting dynamics, and of all of Benson and Moorehead’s films, this one arguably has the most fun with its slow burn premise. Without giving too much away, the effects of Synchronic transport Steve to some unexpected places, both literally and figuratively, and this leads to some moments of fish-out-of-water comedy, as well as harrowing emotional depths, as is the case in one scene in particular near the end of the second act. The film-making duo have always had a knack for big ideas executed effectively on a small-scale budget, and while I can’t say for sure exactly how much Synchronic cost, it’s probably not quite as expensive as it at first seems. To me, that’s a testament to their brand of sci-fi, in that it’s about what you don’t see as much as it’s about what you’re shown.
Smartly, though, the film never loses sight of its emotional core, which is the sometimes strained relationship between Steve and Dennis. They’ve known each other for a long time, but Dennis doesn’t seem to appreciate all that he has and in fact envies Steve’s bachelor lifestyle despite the latter’s unhappiness. It’s a unique angle to take for a duo, and both leads do a good job selling Benson and Moorehead’s naturalistic dialogue. Even during the emotionally heightened scenes of high drama, the viewer always feels like they’re listening to two real people talk. It works wonders in keeping the viewer emotionally invested in the characters’ ordeals and lives. Executed differently, this could have been a more heightened, more melodramatic story, but here, everything is rather low key, even the more fantastical elements.
That’s been a key factor in Benson and Moorehead’s films—despite the wild, high concept premises, they manage to feel grounded thanks to their slow burn and naturalistic nature. Some might interpret this as boring, but I view it more as deliberate. It lets the viewer take everything in a little at a time and appreciate the understated but well done cinematography and set design. However, you could argue in the case of Synchronic that it could have been trimmed here and there. It’s difficult to point out any one instance of the movie feeling a bit long winded, but by the end I did feel that way a bit. It’s nowhere near enough to ruin the movie, but it does stand out amongst the rest of their filmography since they deal almost exclusively in slow burn sci-fi dramas.
But at the end of the day, Benson and Moorehead are an immensely talented film-making duo, with each of their movies approaching unique, wild concepts from grounded, painfully human angles. Synchronic falls right in that line—it has a neat hook that allows for some great, creative scenes, but it is, ultimately, a moving story about doing one last good thing with your life before moving on. It’s sometimes funny, often sad, but very memorable in a world where sci-fi movies tend to lean towards the bombastic side of things. In other words, if you like Benson and Moorehead’s other works, Synchronic is a must watch, and if you have yet to jump on board, this is as good a place as any to start.
Synchronic opens in theaters starting Friday, October 23rd.