Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead are writers/directors quietly building a filmography of smart, affecting, relatively low-key genre features. From their twisty debut Resolution (2012) to the gorgeous in every way Spring (2014) to the intimate cocktail that is The Endless (2017), their films blend the personal with the wondrous in ways that are never less than their own. Their latest feels, on paper at least, to be an intentional step towards reaching a wider audience — one it deserves — but that doesn’t stop it from focusing on the “smaller” things that matter most. Synchronic is a sci-fi/thriller about valuing time with the people we hold close, and while it should be a no-brainer it grows more complicated when time is actively working against you.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are paramedic partners and best friends working the streets of New Orleans. Dennis is married with a newborn while Steve is a bachelor prone to passing his hours off duty with alcohol and women, but while their lives differ they both share feelings of uncertainty and restlessness. One night a call brings them to a house where a man has inexplicably been stabbed with an antique sword, and the next finds a corpse burned to death with no surrounding damage — the only clue at both scenes is an empty packet previously home to a new synthetic drug called Synchronic. More mysterious incidents occur, each connected by the drug, and then both men find their lives shattered. Steve is diagnosed with an inoperable tumor atop his pineal gland, and Dennis’ teenage daughter disappears leaving only an empty Synchronic packet where she was last seen.
Stop reading here I guess if you’re adverse to details that might amount to a spoiler about the film’s main conceit — that said, the title alone should tip you off — but if you’re okay with details that honestly aren’t spoilers if we’re being at all serious with ourselves then please keep reading.
Synchronic offers up two main characters adrift in life with tenuous connections growing more unsure each day. Dennis is popping pills to dull his reality, a life marked by a crumbling marriage, a teenager growing continually distant, and a baby, and his daughter Brianna’s disappearance turns the uncertainty into something far more definitive. Steve masks his own lack of connection with forgettable sex partners and alcohol that leaves his memory hazy by design. Time is moving forward for both men, but neither is able or willing to take hold of what matters now.
This new drug and the deaths that result from it set both men on a journey of sorts, but while Dennis shuts down Steve steps up to investigate the disappearances and deaths. What he finds ties his tumor, the drug, and Brianna’s disappearance together in a way that allows for some thrilling but brief excursions into the past. A countdown clock, of sorts, hangs over both the main narrative and each of these trips, and it builds suspense atop an already engrossing personal tale of self-discovery. Neanderthals, KKK pricks, and more threats from the past work as both exciting genre beats and pressure points forcing Steve towards some desperate decisions, and it’s through these moments that both men are given a window into what’s important. The question becomes will they leap through, or will they remain content watching it all go by.
Mackie takes the higher profile role here and delivers with a character more substantive than the fun, flashy one he’s become famous for in the Marvel universe. Steve is lost, and Mackie convinces throughout his journey towards an enlightenment that might come at a cost. Dornan has the more subdued side of things, but while he too seems destined to be best known for bigger roles — yes, he plays a millionaire S&M addict in those dirty blockbusters, but it’s his turn as a serial rapist in The Fall (2013-2016) that has harnessed his talent best — he does strong and affecting work here as a man seemingly unable to rescue his family like he does every day for strangers.
Moorhead tackles cinematography duties too and once again captures a world both familiar and foreign. We’ve all seen neighborhoods like these, once rampant with life but left to feel run down and abandoned, and it works to create an atmosphere that matches the men’s own feelings and states of mind. Something’s off, and they’re all alone in the “wilderness.” Composer Jimmy LaValle matches the intent with a score that eases viewers only to unsettle as time ticks by.
Synchronic is a well-paced thriller that gives time to its characters before ramping up the momentum with danger, humor, heart, and a recognition of the good, the bad, and the important in our day to day lives. It may seem atypical for a genre film to be so concerned with the humanity at its core, but for Benson & Moorhead it’s almost become their trademark as auteurs. People matter, and while not everyone is worth your time, someone out there is. Give it to them.