A supernatural time-traveling tale rich in humanity.
It’s so hard to craft a serious story (or at the very least a credible one) when dealing with such a specific genre. Fans of any style of film know the many tropes which have come to define it so well, that to create something singular and special in the space of that is all but impossible these days. Yet the writing/directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have managed this very feat with their latest offering, the psychological sci-fi drama Synchronic. The film, which wowed audiences at festivals everywhere from Fantastic Fest to TIFF in 2019, has wasted no time in offering up a new shade of science fiction while also giving audiences a realistic portrayal of male friendship. Ripe with spectacular effects and great set pieces, but with a grounded earnestness that holds steady all the way through, Synchronic is one of the more telling and striking modern science fiction pieces that can only bring good things for everyone involved.
Synchronic centers on a pair of New Orleans paramedics named Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) who spend their nights answering one life and death call after another. When a recent number of calls feature victims in catatonic states, it soon becomes clear that the strange surge of cases are linked to a new designer drug known as Synchronic. Soon, the disappearance of Dennis’ daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) and the occurrence of a life-threatening illness both look to throw Steve’s world into chaos.
Benson and Moorhead couldn’t have picked a better setting for Synchronic. New Orleans, already a city full of its own brand of magic and mystique is the perfect backdrop for this story which blends the human with the surreal. The sense of place is never stronger than during one scene in which Steve and Dennis are transporting a severely injured mardi gras performer (complete with a top hat and skeleton make-up) who is also tripping on the title drug into the back of their ambulance. As the two get into a fight, the patient starts laughing maniacally evoking the mystery of the city and the hallucinogenic effects of the drug in a perfect moment. The effects themselves are wondrous to behold. After each individual takes the drug in question, they are transported back to another time and place, usually one echoing a deep-seeded fear. Once Steve begins taking the drug, he finds himself in a civil war battlefield, an otherworldly snowy landscape and a gun-toting racist’s front yard. Each one of these worlds is draped in muted colors rich in a dark wonder that gives a subtle eeriness, especially where its realistic qualities are concerned. For all its effects and different trips taken, never once does Synchronic feel overblown or overwhelming. Instead, it clings to an air realism that suggests a person’s deepest nightmares can seem incredibly real.
Synchronic continues the tradition of stellar sci-fi managing to stay rooted in something incredibly human and real in the midst of highly imaginative elements. In this film’s case, it’s the honest exploration of the friendship between Steve and Dennis that serves as the story’s silent engine, propelling it forward and making everyone watching all the more invested. Steve and Dennis have seen everything there is to see on the job, forming the kind of bond that can only be gained by a shared experience as unique as theirs. The two are in each other’s lives; they have drinks at the bar together, Steve attends Dennis’ family functions (and even has an “uncle” relationship with Brianna). When crises hits both men, they instinctively reach for one another, but still curiously keep each other at arm’s length. Dennis becomes despondent because of Brianna’s disappearance while Steve cannot let him in close enough to reveal his medical diagnosis or the fact that he has been taking Synchronic in order to cope with it. A beautiful third act scene sees both men, weary from their current states, taking a walk down an old, curiously deserted New Orleans neighborhood with ancient mansions and willows in the background. It’s here where the pair unburden themselves to one another and the true shape of their brotherhood finally flourishes. It’s a stellar scene full of character and heart that is probably the film’s finest moment.
The two lead actors, best known for successful franchises lightyears away from the world of Synchronic, sink their teeth into their rich characters. Dornan is perfectly tormented as a man with a once-content life that is now falling apart. The actor carries the right amount of confusion and fright as someone losing everything and everyone who is most important to him. Mackie is even more impressive as someone having to acquit himself with two realities while portraying someone dealing with his own mortality. Rather than exploit Steve’s illness in an actor-y way, Mackie instead embodies the guilt, regret, anger and despair of someone facing the most monumental time of their life. Finally, while Synchronic is mostly a two-man show, Ioannides gives a strong turn in her handful of scenes as a young woman ostensibly caught between the light and the dark.
Synchronic skillfully manages to touch on a variety of modern problems. The main plot recalls the ever-growing opioid crisis in America, while the chance to comment on the hotbed of still-prevalent racial tension isn’t wasted by the filmmakers. The way Benson and Moorhead balance the real with the unreal puts them in the squarely in the league of Rod Serling (the quintessential master of combining the complexities of real life with the power of the imagination), especially in the two stark realities they give Steve. There is the reality of the outside world he is facing when he leaves his home where the horrors of prejudice and patients under the spell of the drug await him. Then there is the reality within his own walls and mind that’s dominated by his disease and his need to use Synchronic as a way to simultaneously understand his illness and escape it. All of this is not only stunningly presented under the guise of fiction, but done so in one of the most tender and visually captivating genre experiences of the year.