Synchronic Review [TIFF 2019]

Matt Donato

Reviewed by:
On September 7, 2019
Last modified:September 7, 2019


Synchronic is conceptually beautiful science fiction. It engages, excites, and proves Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are creating today's most fascinatingly stimulating cinematic experiences on a level unmatched.

If you (somehow) aren’t obsessing over filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Synchronic will change that. Not because it’s their finest achievement to date, but because their ethereal brand of existential questioning has never been so accessible. Resolution, Spring and The Endless exude clever poise under immense ambition, undiluted. Synchronic works as a gateway drug, stepping into grander locational shoots and expansive universes that break away from their otherwise minimalist architectures (in comparison). Thrilling sci-fi exploration that ponders the melancholic state of self-worth, existence, and what it truly means to be alive. Sound like the same recycled introspection that steals indie film festival attention each year? Not with Benson and Moorhead’s dedication to character, detail, and steady craft.

Partners Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), New Orleans paramedics, encounter death on a daily basis. Their roughened exteriors hide secrets from medical issues to relationship woes, but nothing can prepare them for the reality they’re about to uncover. “Synchronic,” a new synthetic over-the-counter hallucinogen, is responsible for a string of incidents the two keep treating. Worse, Dennis’ daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) gets caught in Synchronic’s teleportation side-effects and disappears. Steve, because of a recently diagnosed brain tumor, turns out to be the only one capable of harnessing Synchronic’s powers. Can he crack the drug’s molecular code, rescue Brianna, and find peace within himself?

Sorry kids, Benson and Moorhead don’t do “surface value.”

As a warning and disclaimer, the film’s first third – Act I – fights an uphill battle before hitting a speedster’s stride. Dornan and Mackie play hot-shot, best friend medics indulging their stereotypes. One the family man who “has it all,” the other a field-playing “James Bond” lothario. Characters taking what they have for granted and wallowing in the moment instead of loving what they grasp. We’ve seen this derelict retreat into personal shells before. Benson and Moorhead are telling a familiar story, but what’s important is they’re telling it their way, and that’s better than most.

By allowing Anthony Mackie to take point, stepping away from Dornan for solitary reflection, Synchronic brings levity and comfort to an otherwise bleak tragedy. To be fair, Jamie Dornan’s yet to impress me beyond smolders in past roles – maybe I’m a bit bias. Or maybe it’s because Anthony Mackie is a talented actor with range and complication behind an otherwise musclehead machismo. After Brianna vanishes, Steve turns into a scientific renegade conducting experiments of the incredulous and is our guide into the world (er, worlds) of “Synchronic.” His recorded diaries a mix of special effects illusions, blunt quantum parallel analysis, and phenomenal depth contained within another deceptively complex performance from Anthony Mackie.

Benson and Moorhead hurdle over the competition when it comes to character design and evoked performances. Synchronic doesn’t rely on dramatic monologues. More is conveyed through glares across strip club tables and whiskey banter than prophetic moments of Hollywoodized epiphany. Dornan, who I’ve criticized for being stonefaced once or thrice before, shows emotional vulnerability as a lost father dealing with both grief and marital uncertainty (Katie Aselton his fed-up wife Tara). Mackie – in parallel – forced to comprehend death’s outreached hand, paradoxical time-warp anomalies, and pre-dated historical lifestyles. Value exists in every arc – the buddy paramedics, forever friends, the superhero saviors – and goddammit we care about each protagonist. Flaws, scars and all.

Of course, Synchronic is also a showcase for Benson and Moorhead’s cosmic ingenuity. Cinematography (credit Mr. Moorhead) loops and tumbles in circular motions just as Synchronic unlocks infinite temporal existences. Like a vinyl record, except every song plays at once instead of in a row.

Without getting into the “hows” and “whys,” Steve is able to travel backward in time for brief spurts based on the drug’s modified enhancements. This allows Benson and Moorhead to explore Ice Age tundras, New Orleans’ slave ownership past, and other landscapes that prove these two can handle – nay, deserve – bigger budgetary allowances. Revolutionary trenches that mirror clusters of blazing stars in the sky, Moorhead’s camera pulling out on one to transition seamlessly into the other. Scripting, framing, Jimmy LaValle’s bellowing intergalactic score – all pieces interlock. No friction here. It’s all working in synchrony as cinema should.

Louisiana’s post-Katrina slums and dilapidated suburbs set a tone for Synchronic that parallels the state of both main characters (broken, in need of repair). Steve and Dennis interact with voodoo priests tweaking on narcotics, or stoned vagrants who’d been stabbed with a 3-foot blade – neither man phased. As reconciled, they deal with the extraordinaire every day. Death in its oddest forms given how 99% of humanity will pass away tucked into bed. New Orleans is this den of sin where you can avoid mundanity with a flask at all times, but also where the abnormal seems pedestrian. A perfect place for dismembered, scorched, and other gruesome corpses to turn up without much pause (you’re not escaping the gory horrors of Synchronic that easy).

Mark my words: Synchronic will be a catalyst for big(ger) things from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Science fiction concepts dream the grandest “what if” spectacularity, delivering a sensory exploration as dark as the night sky – yet so breathlessly engaging. A wondrous Rubik’s Cube that’s not meant to stump, only challenge before granting the rewards of payoff. Synchronic proves that deep thoughts can generate entertaining cinema, even without endings that drop off open-ended cliffs. Oh, the places you’ll go in Benson and Moorhead’s latest strain of synapse-stimulating genre provocation. Ingest, unlock your mind, let the fantastic consume you.

Synchronic Review [TIFF 2019]

Synchronic is conceptually beautiful science fiction. It engages, excites, and proves Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are creating today's most fascinatingly stimulating cinematic experiences on a level unmatched.