Written By: Daniel Kinsley
If you had one word to describe filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, “ambitious” immediately comes to mind. The writing-directing pair have made a name for themselves with deeply imaginative, smart, complex genre films that often combine the terrifying and the intimate. From the romance of Spring (2014) a Linklater-meets-Cronenberg creature feature, to the cosmic dread of The Endless (2017) each of their films have been worthy of hyperbole, and even spawned their own lo-fi shared universe. With Synchronic (2020) their fourth feature, the boys show up with many of their familiar strengths; from strong performances and a unique take on a familiar genre trope, it feels poised to be another ace in the hole. Unfortunately, the film ultimately falls short of its lofty aims, largely as a result of its ambition, ironically. While it lacks the emotional wallop of their previous works, Synchronic remains a heady and thoughtful effort from a couple of guys who are always swinging for the fences.
New Orleans paramedics, and best friends, Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are called to a series of unusual and gruesome scenes with a common theme: a mysterious designer drug called synchronic. After Dennis’ daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing, the pair are drawn into a complicated truth that will challenge what each man knows about reality itself. To say more would be to spoil the fun of discovery; suffice it to say that the result is a genre mash-up built around a touching emotional core which feels entirely in line with their previous filmography.
The film takes its time setting up character details, and while Mackie and particularly Dornan give sensitive, committed performances, the script does not quite give them the depth each is hinting at beyond their companionable banter. It is a film that is largely interested in big ideas, which often times means a slow burn to set up threads which will pay off by the end. While there is a lot to digest (repeat viewings of their films are often rewarded) the film somehow manages to both do too little, while ultimately biting off more than it can chew. Once things are set in the motion, the results are alternately thrilling and heartbreaking, but it takes an awful lot of time to kick into second gear, and the film suffers a bit as a result of its shaggy middle.
It is a bit ironic that their biggest film (thanks to an increased budget and more star power) ends up feeling like their most minor work so far. Still, a lesser effort from these two feels head and shoulders above most similar efforts, and if the film is able to expose more viewers to their work, it is a net win for a pair of filmmakers who only ought to get more interesting from here.
After three increasingly imaginative films, it almost seems inevitable that Benson and Moorhead would run up against limitations in simply trying to do too much. While the emotional finale does not land with quite the same catharsis as was intended, it is certainly not for lack of effort. Synchronic eventually lands somewhere between Bringing Out The Dead (1999) and Tenet (2020) the results of which are never boring, even when they do not entirely gel.