Let us cut right to the chase: if you are a fan of speculative fiction – science fiction, fantasy, and horror – and you do not watch the films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, then you are essentially failing as a fan. You are missing out on sensational examples of genre cinema. You are the contemporary equivalent of those viewers who skipped out on Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Cypher) 20 years ago, or ignored David Cronenberg (Scanners, Videodrome) in the early 1980s. Benson and Moorhead have written and directed four outstanding feature films over the past decade. Their work is getting better every time. Synchronic, produced in 2019 but only really available around the world now, strikes me as their strongest work yet. It is a dazzlingly inventive and stylish science fiction thriller.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are a pair of New Orleans paramedics who notice the rise of a designer drug known as “synchronic”. People who take the drug appear to be dying in varied and disturbing circumstances. When Dennis’ daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) takes synchronic and disappears, Steve goes to extraordinary lengths to find out where she has gone.
Synchronic is absolutely one of those thrillers where the less the viewer knows about the film going in, the more enjoyment they are likely to get in return. It defies expectations to a large extent, starting in one particular style and genre and then progressively growing more unexpected and ambitious as it goes. In this aspect it follows from their earlier films such as Spring and The Endless. Readily identifiable characters are faced with increasingly unearthly circumstances, and must take an enormous leap of faith to traverse it. In this case the key character is Steve (Mackie), who begins the film hearing tragic news and whose response to that news heavily influences his actions through the ensuing 100 minutes or so of action. Mackie delivers a strong, driven performance in the role; in his higher profile role of Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe he never gets this much quality material to showcase his talents. He gets more than enough here: layers of trauma, smarts, experience, and bravery.
What really adds to the film’s depth is Jamie Dornan as Dennis. While Steve experiences the film’s central narrative, it is Dennis who acts as a thematic mirror. Where Steve is an emotionally battered womanizer, Dennis is in theory a secure and loving husband and father. When his daughter goes missing, Dennis and his wife begin to emotionally struggle and the cracks in their relationship emerge. There is no clear narrative purpose to their scenes, but it adds thematic richness and emotional depth to the film. It pushes it to a fresh level of quality and complexity. Things that happen literally to Steve happened more obliquely to Dennis: they’re both obsessed and both trapped, but for one the experience is literal and for the other it is purely emotional. Together they balance the film brilliantly.
The film is inventively shot by Moorhead as cinematographer, while Benson’s screenplay is clever and resonant. Synchronic is another element of proof that these two creatives are among cinema’s best bets for quality SF at the moment. Their names have been solidly established as a brand of quality, and their films easily certified as ‘must-sees’ by association alone. This is brilliant stuff.