Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have always pushed the interplay between the lead characters to the forefront of their bare-bones budgeted sci-fi/horror films, whether its a pair of lovers getting to know each other ('Spring'), two best friends trapped together ('Resolution'), or brothers revisiting their childhood trauma ('The Endless'). It made me curious to see how they'd treat the leads of 'Synchronic', the creative duo's biggest budget film so far - and the first with a well-known cast.
Anthony Mackie ('Avengers: Endgame', 'Seberg') and Jamie Dornan ('Wild Mountain Thyme', 'Robin Hood') star, respectively, as Steve and Dennis, best buds and paramedics who have seen some odd things working the night shift in New Orleans. Now there's a new drug causing havoc on the streets. It's called Synchronic, a synthetic compound (made from the same red flower that appeared in 'The Endless', one of several throwback references) that reduces an unlucky woman to ashes and turns another guy into a grinning face atop a pile of dismembered limbs at the bottom of a motel elevator shaft. The creeping dread and eerie score in these scenes harks back to another bizarre acid-fried horror film, Jeff Lieberman's 'Blue Sunshine'.
Things really start to get complicated when Dennis' 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), gets involved, vanishing from a deck chair after taking a dose of Synchronic at a party. In the wake of her disappearance, Steve buys up the remaining supply of the drug. Due to a unique set of medical circumstances, he learns that he can somewhat control its reality-warping side effects and begins to form a plan to find the teenager. This is where the film starts to pull in threads about the pineal gland, and time travel, and so on. The plot gets so busy that screenwriter Benson abruptly introduces a character who delivers a slab of exposition before quickly disappearing again.
I'm a big fan of Benson and Moorhead's work and the profound, humanist approach of their style of horror. 'Resolution' had some genuinely unnerving moments and ideas, a few rough edges, and a conclusion I found conceptually interesting, if not satisfying. I adored 'Spring' because I connected with it on some personal levels, loved it as a creepy romance story, and was genuinely impressed by the quality of the production. I found 'The Endless' more satisfying than 'Resolution', pulling off the weird moments and ideas with finesse. Like other genre-bending horror movies such as 'Get Out', 'A Quiet Place' and 'Hereditary', their films are visceral but also have intellectual and emotional jolts, which is refreshing in a landscape where mega-franchises have a stranglehold on cinema audiences.
Like their previous films, 'Synchronic' has little interest in following horror rules and expectations, the mechanics which are often deemed to make genre work inferior. What puts 'Synchronic' ahead of many indie genre films of its type is not only Moorhead's skill as a cinematographer, but also the judicious way in which he and Benson apply their larger-than-usual budget. The film does rely on CGI to visualise its supernatural elements, but these are applied subtly enough that there are only a couple of shots that look fake enough to be distracting, and the filmmakers alternate them with striking shots of the prehistoric countryside, icy tundras, Civil War battlegrounds and some good old-fashioned in-camera trickery. The film also displays some real heart as it puts love and relationships through the cosmic horror thresher.
What puts 'Synchronic' ahead of many indie genre films of its type is not only Moorhead's skill as a cinematographer, but also the judicious way in which he and Benson apply their budget.
However, 'Syncronic' isn't quite the huge leap forward that you'd expect from the creative pair. Despite the bigger budget, the locations feel underpopulated. This is fine during the scenes set in twilight hour New Orleans, but Steve's journeys through time are equally as empty. The marquee-friendly actors create an even more unusual problem: it slightly cracks the immersion of the Moorhead/Benson universe, which is usually filled out with a cast of unknown actors.
For example: whenever I'm watching a movie featuring the Wilhelm Scream, it never fails to yank me out of the fictitious world I've immersed myself in - my suspension of disbelief is immediately replaced with the realisation that I'm witnessing something artificial.
The same thing happens when I see certain actors appear on screen. When Natasha Lyonne showed up in the terrific 'Ad Astra', all I could think was, "There's Natasha Lyonne," and it totally ruined any impact her scenes might have had on me. I can watch an actor play the same character over and over (Michael Douglas and George Clooney come to mind), but if I see, say, Samuel L. Jackson wander into frame, or Andrew Garfield appear in anything other than 'Boy A', all I can think about is the fact that I'm watching a movie. Unfortunately, the same thing occurs with Mackie in 'Synchronic'. He isn't bad - in fact, he's warm, sympathetic and has great chemistry with the surprisingly laid-back Dornan - but he's a little too big for a film this small. It's distracting. Perhaps we can blame that on the ubiquity of Marvel movies.
With every film they make, Moorhead and Benson refine their genre-bending, unapologetically cerebral style, and 'Synchronic' is no exception. While it does feel like a smaller step forward in terms of ambition, it isn't a waste of time. Even if they only pull at an interesting thread and don't fully unravel it, it's still more unique than most other genre movies you'll see.