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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Synchronic

Starring Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan, this sci-fi thriller follows two paramedics dealing with a trippy new designer drug.
By Sarah Ward
February 11, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
February 11, 2021
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Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead aren't currently household names. If they keep writing and directing mind-bending sci-fi like Synchronic, though, they will be. The pair actually appear destined to become better known via Marvel, as they're slated to helm one of the MCU's many upcoming Disney+ TV series, the Oscar Isaac-starring Moon Knight — but they've already worked their way up from the US$20,000 budget of their 2012 debut Resolution to making movies with Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. Here, with Marvel's own Falcon and Fifty Shades of Grey's leading man, they play with time, relativity, fate and brain-altering substances. They ponder the shadows that the past leaves on the present, the way that progressing through life can feel far more like a stumble than following a clear path, and how confronting loss and death can reframe your perspective on living, too. Those temporal jumps and existential themes aren't new, of course, and neither is the film's steely look and feel, and its willingness to get dark. But that's the thing about Benson and Moorhead: few filmmakers can twist familiar parts into such a distinctive, smart and engaging package in the same way, and with each and every one of their movies.

Synchronic shares its title with a designer drug. In the film's vision of New Orleans, the hallucinogen can be bought in stores — and plenty of people are doing just that. Shift after shift, paramedics Steve Denube (Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Dornan) find themselves cleaning up the aftermath, as users of the synthetic substance keep overdosing, dying in unusual ways and getting injured in strange mishaps. And, these aren't your usual drug-fuelled incidents. One, involving a snakebite, happens in a hotel without even the slightest sign of slithering reptiles on the loose. That's enough to arouse the world-wearied Steve and Dennis' interest, and to give them something to talk about other than the former's attachment-free life and the latter's marriage. Then Dennis' teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides, Into the Badlands) goes missing, and the two EMTs are instantly keen to investigate any links that the popular pill might have to her disappearance.

In a film that initially drips with tension, dread and intensity, Benson and Moorhead don't take too long to reveal how synchronic works, but it's still something that's best discovered by watching. They don't ever simply tell the audience what's going on, though. As all good films that tinker with time should — and as some not-so-great ones, like Australian rom-com Long Story Short, try to yet flounder — Synchronic doesn't merely show the effects, either, but instead uses every tool at its disposal to take viewers on the same journey. Indeed, much of the movie hinges upon how Steve feels when he pops a pill. While the character could just explain that aloud, that'd be the least interesting option and the film's directors know it. So, whether peering up at the sky, toying with slow motion and perspective, tilting angles, completely flipping the picture or using long takes, the feature gets subjective with its cinematography, which is lensed by Moorhead. One dazzling and dramatic shot at a time, it plunges everyone watching into Steve's head as he first experiments with synchronic's capabilities, then endeavours to use them to bring Brianna home.

There's more to Steve's story than possibly being a hero, and that's one of Synchronic's superpowers. Although surreal imagery, a trippy narrative and an off-kilter atmosphere all sit in the movie's toolkit, it's how Benson and Moorhead ground all of the above in genuine emotions that makes this a science fiction film with both brains and a pulse. Easy sentiment and schmaltz have no place here, but anchoring the film's musings on life certainly does. After all, there's little point in pondering 'what if?' scenarios, which is sci-fi's entire remit, if those trains of thought don't also interrogate and explore the human condition. Consequently, although it initially seems as if the script makes a few easy moves regarding Steve's background and current experience, there's insight in those choices. There's cold, hard truth, too, which Synchronic happily faces — because how we're each shaped by trauma is life's number one story.

This isn't Benson and Moorhead's first dance with this subject, as anyone who has seen Resolution, 2014's horror-romance Spring and 2017's excellent cult thriller The Endless will spot. That said, even when the premise of their features explicitly calls for repetition — always cleverly and playfully — the pair doesn't just retread their previous footsteps. With each addition to their shared resume, the filmmaking duo demonstrates an uncanny knack for using genre confines and deploying recognisable tropes to excavate pain and tragedy. When viewed as a whole, their career to-date provides an impressive and perceptive snapshot of dealing with life's difficulties, in fact. Each of Benson and Moorhead's four films so far are strikingly shot and astutely written, and rank among the best horror and sci-fi efforts of the past decade, but they're also as thoughtful and resonant as they are intelligent and ambitious — and that's an irresistible combination.

Synchronic does occasionally falter. Mackie gets the better part and has far more of an impact than Dornan, for instance. But the lived-in camaraderie between their characters — who've been partners so long that they speak in shorthand — always feels real, and Dornan is still worlds away from the woeful Wild Mountain Thyme, his previous big-screen role. The film's ending doesn't completely fall into place, too, but even that feels like a minor issue. When a movie takes you on the kind of ride that Synchronic does, in such a stunning, sharp and thrilling fashion, and with such depth at is core, its tiny imperfections fade from memory quickly. Or, as Benson and Moorhead might posit, they help make everything that's exceptional shine even brighter, stand out even more and cut even deeper.

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