Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Stars: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides
No one could accuse Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead of lacking ambition. Over the course of their low-budget features Resolution, Spring and The Endless, the idiosyncratic creative duo have navigated time loops, metaphysical horror monsters, cultists, the mandates of storytelling itself and inter-species romance (of a kind…). They’ve even had the gumption to start weaving together their own cinematic universe. Synchronic sees them working with their biggest budget to date, and with well-recognised movie stars. But if their expenses have swollen, their ambitions have continued apace.
Their latest opens with the kind of psychotropic, hallucinogenic flourishes that their prior pictures usually spent much time building up to. A couple take pills in their hotel room that seem to transfer them back through time. Him to a desert; her to a swampland. Following a title card and a hard cut we’re introduced to paramedics Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), working the night shift in New Orleans. Their first call continues the woozy, floating feel of the cold open as Moorhead’s camera drifts around the scene of an altogether more low-rent couple’s overdose. Regular collaborator Jimmy LaValle compliments the baked sensation on the film’s trippy score.
Steve gets stuck with a needle and gets himself tested. While waiting on results the pair continue to work and a new trend seems to be on the rise and ever-present at their call-outs; the titular legal high, Synchronic. This leads us to the opening couple. She needs treating for a snakebite. Synchronic’s trips literally transport the subject through time. The woman here didn’t just hallucinate that she’d wound up back in the Louisiana wilds of days gone by; she went there. Bad news comes in threes. Steve’s results aren’t good, and a late call-out hits close to home for Dennis, tearing his family apart.
Soon, after a slightly-too-convenient info-dump calcifies the movie’s conceit, Steve starts turning Synchronic into his own personal time travel experiment. In the main he frames his choice as altruistic, but there’s a pronounced personal motive to his cavalier exploits. Escapism. Escapism is, of course, one of the root drives of a lot of drug misuse. Benson and Moorhead have merely added their own sci-fi spin to the idea.
Last summer, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet showed us just how uninteresting time travel can be if you have nothing or nobody to invest in. Benson and Moorhead do one better, giving us a little character flavour before they start rabbit-holing, but other thorny problems arise. The pair’s penchant for dude-bro dialogue hasn’t left them and, unfortunately, feels more tired than ever. Steve’s Blackness becomes a pivotal plot point when he is transported back in time and – within 7 minutes – gets mixed-up with the KKK. Its a sage observation that time travel within modern American history might well be a white man’s game, but it also feels a little bit exploitative in the same moment. Still, the movie is sensitive enough to acknowledge this (even if it later doubles down on this same tendency).
For all the self-seriousness of Synchronic – the sincere speechifying and heavy consequences of its interior dramas – it also feels, strangely, like the most lightweight of the duo’s films so far. The flimsiest and least compelling. It’s tough to pinpoint the cause exactly. Dornan and Mackie are fine, if not stretched (personally, I’m exceedingly pleased that Benson and Moorhead have elected to remain behind the camera this time). It’s a handsome enough film with a particularly pleasing sound design. So why does it feel so small? Perhaps because, while it collects a lot of strong thematic meat in the opening stretch (addiction, illness, post-Katrina New Orleans malaise), it lets a lot of this fall by the wayside for it’s third act rescue mission. These elements become mere MacGuffins to get the job done; the task at hand being a story that feels – appropriately, I suppose – as though it was work-shopped backwards, with everything the provides early promise more of a means to an end.
Still, wild, unchecked ambition isn’t the worst quality for modern independent filmmakers to possess. I’m really pleased that there’s room enough in the present arena for their very specifically curious flights of fancy. The greater their body of work gets, the more particular the feeling of their films seems to become. If Synchronic opens further doors for them, I’m hoping that sense of contrarian individuality doesn’t get lost along the passage to whatever’s next.