Fantastic Fest 2019: SYNCHRONIC Review – Benson and Moorhead Strike Again
Starring Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan
Written by Justin Benson
Directed by Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
In the span of five years, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead created three captivating and fascinating films, each one intertwined with the others, a shared universe without the forced feeling of The Conjuring or the grand planning of the MCU. The three films – Resolution, Spring, The Endless – each dealt with various themes that were rooted in the human experience. Be it friendship and obligation, love and the fear of change, or family and what precisely that means, their films feel approachable amidst their high-brow concepts because there is always something to relate to.
For their fourth feature-length directorial offering, Benson and Moorhead turn their sci-fi/horror knob almost entirely to the left, taking away much of the Lovecraftian elements of their previous three films. Still, there is a cosmic feel here, as though the story of Synchronic has tendrils reaching far into the depths of the universe and this story is simply scratching the surface.
Mackie plays Steve, an EMT who’s partnered with Dennis (Dornan) as they help the citizens of New Orleans amidst an outbreak of overdoses connected to a new designer drug called Synchronic. Two major events upend Steve’s life, the first being his brain cancer diagnosis and the second being the disappearance of Dennis’ daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides). Here’s where things get interesting: when Synchronic is used by teenagers, it has the ability to transport users through time. However, anyone older than that doesn’t have the same effect due to the calcification of the pineal gland. Steve’s brain tumor has reactivated his pineal gland to a teenage-like status, allowing Synchronic to have its full effect. And since Brianna has gone missing and Steve loves her like she’s part of his family (or him part of hers), he’ll do whatever it takes in order to find her, no matter where or when.
Once the concept is laid out, the film plays out in a rather direct manner, moving along at a brisk clip with little in the way of bloating or dragging. Benson and Moorhead keep the film interesting when Steve embarks on his journeys throughout time as well as the times when he wears the fear and terror of his diagnosis. Once again, Benson and Moorhead never forget that the best way to make a film have impact is to ensure that their characters, warts and all, are worthy and deserving of our care. They may be imperfect but who isn’t?
While Synchronic is undoubtedly the duo’s biggest film, it still manages to feel grounded and intimate. Their take on New Orleans largely ignores the city’s boisterous identity and instead focuses on the grit. Steve’s forays into the past, with one exception, are tightly contained. Synchronic never becomes a headline sensation, instead lurking in the underbelly of the drug world, sold primarily at cheap head shops and gas stations.
Mackie weaves effortlessly through the story, embodying a man who wants more than what his life choices have led to while also capturing the subdued terror of someone who can practically see the clock ticking down the seconds left on his life. Dornan never really matches the prowess of Mackie, offering a suitable but ultimately forgettable performance.
Synchronic probably won’t take the #1 slot when the inevitable “Benson and Moorhead’s Filmography Ranked!” lists begin. Still, it’s a fun, engaging movie that has a cosmic imagination and never really strays from its conceit.
Synchronic is Benson and Moorhead at their most accessible but no less fascinating. It may be rough around the edges but their grasp of humanity amidst mindbending concepts is as strong as ever.