Cinema Review: Synchronic | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, November 23rd, 2020  

Synchronic

Studio: Well Go USA
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

Oct 20, 2020 Web Exclusive
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For the past eight years, filmmaking duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have been carving out a quiet niche within the underbelly of American horror. Defined by an adherence to naturalistic dialogue, and a juxtaposition of small-scale disquiet with implied cosmic horror, each of their previous three films was clearly painted with the same brush. Even as production quality has scaled accordingly from their $20,000 2012 debut Resolution onwards, it’s been a small trajectory, and one that has rarely carried the taint of studio interference. For better or worse, that arc continues with Synchronic.

More so than their prior work, Synchronic feels designed with wider audiences in mind, though that’s reflected mostly in terms of casting rather than aesthetic choices. Given that the duo themselves took the starring roles in their last film, the wonderfully restrained Lovecraftian medley The Endless, the fact that the two paramedics front-and-centre here are played by Hollywood regulars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan can’t help but add a certain sheen. Regardless, this is a distant cry from the pair’s bigger studio work—fans of 50 Shades beware.

Synchronic follows paramedics Steve Denube (Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Dornan) as they complete their often grisly beat around the dusky moonlit streets of New Orleans. It plays, at first, like a lowkey buddy cop flick—Denube, the eternal bachelor, Dannelly, the begrudging husband and father of two—but that’s largely a veneer for more macabre happenings, whether grounded and fantastical. Both men feel like they’re going through the motions, bumbling through their day-to-day work with their eyes trained on their halcyon days, though for one of them that nostalgia has a harder edge: we learn early on that Denube has a brain tumour by his pineal gland.

The turn into science fiction territory comes from the titular drug: Synchronic. A legal high the sort of which was briefly front page material under the catch-all term “bath salts”, Synchronic has even more irregular effects than face-eating. Take a tab and you’re sent back to another era for 7 minutes. How tangible you are there depends on your age and the relative fluidity of your pineal gland (you can see where this is going), wherein adults only shift partially, and younger people go the full hog. The dramatic thrust of the plot emerges when Dannelly’s daughter doesn’t return after taking a dose—talk about a bad trip.

Given the inherent silliness of such a guiding concept, Moorhead and Benson initially do well by simply laying out these rules and assuming the audience will run with them. People are bitten by prehistoric snakes, seen off with ancient blades, and generally have a pretty awful time whenever they jump back in time—in fact, one of the film’s major points is how awful the past is, a point which, while not invalid, feels less easy to swallow in 2020. However, as the film continues, too much onus is placed on decoding the convoluted, nonsensical mechanics of such a drug, only for many of those mechanics to be tossed out in favour of reductive sentimentality in the film’s climax.

Synchronic is clearly foremost a lower budget labour of love, but Moorhead and Benson do great work in the film’s numerous time travel sequences, giving them an air of otherworldly beauty tainted with the often grisly realities facing Synchronic abusers. As the film continues, this sense of the unseen rippling beneath the surface extends even into the most mundane moments. At one point a bridge is crossed, but instead of the finite darkness of heavy waters beneath it, we see the infinite expanse of space, an image that’s later reflected in screensavers and inverted shots from the sidewalk. It’s far from groundbreaking, but the duo continually ground their themes with simple craft, most notably during a kinetic long take during one of the paramedic team's first responses.

As with the pair’s other films, the main meat of Synchronic is the character work, and Denube and Dannelly fit firmly into their lineage of fraternal pairings, quasi or otherwise. The patter between the two has the pseudo-naturalistic air Moorhead and Benson specialise in, and their bro-adjacent tomfoolery is charming rather than grating for the most part. Eventually, Synchronic hits the same rut the rest of their work does, where the character interactions become somewhat rambling and repetitive, but placing an onus on small character beats in a project like this is a forgivable indulgence.

The fact that Synchronic largely lands its punches is to the filmmakers’ immense credit. Pulling off this sort of small-to-mid budget science fiction yarn is no easy feat, especially in a market that has largely rejected such features, and their passion behind the camera does a lot of the heavy lifting. What that can’t excuse is the emphasis placed on pseudo-babble concerning time travel mechanics (babble which makes less sense the more you think about it), and an intriguing but underdeveloped thread concerning racism rooted in America’s past. Results will vary, but this one’s worth setting aside a little time for. 

Author rating: 6/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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