It’s a great joy to see filmmakers challenge the genres they are fans of with unique and original stories, matched with real innovation and ingenuity when working on a limited budget. Synchronic sees directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless, Spring) graduating to a higher level, without betraying how they’ve approached their stories. Armed with a slightly larger budget, scope, and a couple of Hollywood-friendly stars, this is still a film worthy of the audience happy to champion this directing duo for their originality on a smaller scale. Yet, the appeal to a broader audience feels clearer as well. After all, who doesn’t like a good sci-fi mystery?
Set in New Orleans, Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are longtime best friends and paramedics getting worn out on the job. They’ve seen it all, or so it would seem, as a series of bizarre and gruesome deaths begin popping up all over town. This all seems connected to a new designer drug. Soon enough, Dennis’ oldest daughter (Ally Ioannides) disappears, and with Steve facing a dilemma of his own, he puts himself on a path that will alter his reality to do what’s right.
One of the key things for filmmakers who choose to invest an audience in the world of their films is making sure to have it all thought out. While it is easy to nitpick certain aspects of any story, especially ones that play with reality based on some kind of scientific logic, glaring errors will stand out. However one chooses to interpret certain aspects of what Benson and Moorhead are going for in this film, there’s no point where the actions on the screen do not feel researched from multiple angles to maintain a level of consistency.
That’s an important approach to a smart sci-fi film that needs to introduce familiar ideas in completely new ways while also balancing multiple characters we want to care about. A key element in Benson and Moorhead’s previous films has been the relationships shared between the various co-leads of their films. Whether they’re friends or lovers, buying into that core relationship and what they individually stand for plays well when asking the audience to buy into a premise that could fall apart without having that emotional center.
Having Mackie and Dornan in this film to convey a close friendship full of familiarity means having strong actors who can provide plenty of history through their interactions. Playing different types (Dornan is a family man, Mackie is a lady’s man), we know what separates these men, but it’s also clear that any rift between them comes from certain understandings.
In particular, Mackie has a lot to do in this film, part of which is contending with a physical problem requiring him to deal with it through painkillers. It speaks to the strength of these characters (even when having more context than they do) that the mood alters properly when watching the two friends deal with these issues.
All of that is a way of building up to the film’s trippy, mind-bending elements that I do not want to spoil. Without explaining what these pills do, there’s such a skillful handle of revealing the information needed before getting clearer explanations of what’s going on. That comes from trusting the audience to adapt to the evolving surroundings based on what the user is going through. One can even look to the subtext that comes with taking these drugs and seeing not only the side effects related to the user but also those connected.
To speak to Mackie once again, the way he internalizes his experiences here is quite impressive. Yes, he also speaks plenty and is involved in several wild setpieces putting plenty of skill sets to use, but there’s a lot to take away from what he’s witnessing and how he reacts. That’s especially important when considering him as a black man contending with situations where race does become a component.
I tend to get a refreshing feeling from seeing (typically white) directors, well-established for tackling certain genres, diversifying their approach through the casting of POCs for their lead actor. I witnessed this with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (which would make for a fine companion film), and I see it here in Synchronic as well.
In addition to the actual narrative importance of an actor like Mackie, the whole dynamic of the character feels fresh. That comes from decades of seeing very familiar types occupy specific parts in these sorts of features, and it’s not as though I’m dismissing their quality. Still, it frankly plays well to see Mackie going through his journey, as opposed to Dornan (who is great in his own right in this film).
As the writers, directors, producers, editors, and cinematographers, Benson and Moorhead certainly put as much passion as they could into Synchronic. It is all reflected wonderfully from a production standpoint. With a bigger budget, it’s fun to get those big establishing shots, but the entire film is stellar to look at. Mackie’s journey takes the viewers to many locations, and it is all handled in a way that matches tension with a serene quality speaking to other possible themes. Even as things become more frantic and build to a somewhat convenient climax, there’s never a lack of confidence on display in the filmmaking.
The level of intrigue set up with a film like this comes right away. Seemingly beginning as an updated take on Scorsese’s (brilliant and underseen) Bringing Out the Dead, Synchronic reveals other layers one can attribute to some very neat sci-fi stories, turning everything on its head in the process. As a result, this trippy film provides a cinematic high well worth checking out. It’s aided by strong work all around and the sort of takeaway suggesting there’s plenty of hope for original stories and smart, new approaches to this line of filmmaking.