The latest from Benson & Moorhead is an inventive, if uneven, time-travel tale of armchair physics and mysterious pharmaceuticals
When it comes to low-budget sci-fi/horror, necessity is the mother of invention — and the last few years have proven how inventive writer-director duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead truly are. With Resolution, Spring, and The Endless, Benson and Moorhead have displayed their ability to create horrifying and fantastic worlds that feel both intimate and cosmic in scale with the micro-budget means at their disposal. Synchronic sees Benson and Moorhead take a stab at a similarly-designed mind-bender of a story but with a much bigger budget — one with the clout to hire its stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. While the film’s increased resources do highlight some of the screenplay’s narrative shortcomings, Synchronic is very much a step forward for the creative team. Synchronic isn’t just a welcome new approach to time-travel films or a film that showcases why Anthony Mackie should lead more movies — it does its damnedest to create a slick, no-frills sci-fi story that’s grounded in the intimacy and realism that sets Benson and Moorhead apart from the rest.
Mackie and Dornan play Steve and Dennis, two New Orleans EMTs who must reckon with major rifts in their personal lives. Dennis’ relationship with his wife teeters on the rails after the birth of his second daughter; Steve learns the source of his painful headaches is a giant brain tumor. As the two friends struggle to talk about their personal lives with each other, they’re dispatched to multiple bizarre deaths resulting from Synchronic, a new designer drug hitting the streets. When Dennis’ teenage daughter Briana disappears after using the drug, Steve intervenes, buying up what supply of the drugs he can to help solve Briana’s disappearance. Steve gets more than he bargained for when he realizes the most potent effect of Synchronic — the ability to travel back in time for seven minutes per pill.
Anthony Mackie’s performance is half the reason why Synchronic succeeds as much as it does. Steve is an honest, blunt guy with a practical, noncommittal approach to the world — a worldview that requires some serious reevaluation when he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness. As the film progresses, it’s clear that such a guy is a great fit for such a limited means of time-travel, forced to figuratively and literally make each minute count with each dose of Synchronic. It’s even worth it to imagine a version of Synchronic that’s completely Mackie’s, as his practicality and frustration at figuring out the rules of time-travel results in turning an often-repeated trope of the genre one of the film’s most engaging sequences. Benson and Moorhead’s approach to time travel also revels in the process of figuring out the limitations of their premise while also preserving as much mystery as possible.
While this approach does manage to set Synchronic apart from other time travel films, it does place unfortunate limitations on their screenplay. The filmmakers clearly prize the relationship between Steve and Dennis, but it’s when the film makes it personal by involving Dennis’ daughter that it starts spinning its wheels. The two actors wander the streets of New Orleans with urgent matters on their mind but with just as much aversion to discussing them as possible — making the moments when they do take action feel slightly rushed and unexplored. The decision to bench Dornan for much of these sequences (it’s stated that it’s literally impossible for him to help) is a questionable one as well — as he’s frequently interrogated by his wife for being an unhelpful and helpless character to begin with.
The biggest issue, though, is that Synchronic is a film with so many intriguing jumping-off points that it doesn’t commit to fully exploring any of them. The film breathlessly tumbles from Steve and Dennis’ worsening friendship to understanding how Synchronic works to Brianna’s disappearance without ensuring that these myriad subplots have enough of a narrative or emotional payoff by the film’s conclusion. It does, however, allow Mackie the chance to carry the film squarely on his shoulders, creating a strong enough character to invest our interest in throughout the film.
Despite these narrative shortcomings, Synchronic is a propulsive next step forward for Benson and Moorhead. It’s a well-directed film, and it finally feels like the duo have amassed the budget and talent their ideas are worth. This alone makes Synchronic not only worth a watch, but worth watching out for what these guys will do next.