[Fantastic Fest review] ‘SYNCHRONIC’ – Benson & Moorhead’s latest is an inventive, drug-fueled time-trip

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

SYNCHRONIC

Not rated, 96 minutes.
Director: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton and Ally Ioannides

AUSTIN – Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead love to play with time as much as Christopher Nolan. From time loops (THE ENDLESS) to time cycles (SPRING), the filmmakers love to juxtapose time and serious life events (love, death, acceptance).

Funnily enough, their latest, SYNCHRONIC, touches all areas. It’s a story about two New Orleans paramedics whose lives on the job get turned upside down after responding to a series of deaths where the victims die of inauspicious means.

That’s the vague synopsis.

More pointedly, when close friends Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) arrive on the scene for what seems like a typical overdose, they end up stumbling upon a bizarre plot that will take them down a most unexpected path. The path is not the same for both men. Steve and Dennis are best friends but deeply flawed in their personal lives.

Dennis is in a marriage whose temperature drops colder as problems permeate between him and his wife. Steve is a bachelor, carousing and sleeping around with a different woman from Bourbon Street when he’s not on call. Even when they are on the job, they have a certain lack of compassion.

Distant and desensitized in the work they do, Steve and Dennis go through the motions in responding to drug overdoses, domestic violence, and the odd charred body at an old amusement park. All of that changes, however, when an accidental puncture wound from a drug needle finds something in Steve’s medical examination he didn’t expect: terminal brain cancer. Rather than tell Dennis, he keeps the diagnosis hidden. But then Dennis experiences his own deepened dilemma when his 18-year-old daughter, Brianna, goes missing. These two dramatic life events collide with the realization that the last few medical emergencies and Brianna’s disappearance may be related to a synthetic drug called Synchronic.

Figuring he’s got nothing else to lose, Steve buys up the remaining supply of Synchronic in New Orleans and decides to test the drug for potency. Through experimentation, he discovers the drug’s power in alternating time and how its usage may be the key to finding Brianna.

That’s the story in a nutshell. While it may look like a simple rescue story with mind-altering time elements, the real weight is in the characters. Particularly, Anthony Mackie. Playing Falcon in those Marvel movies may pay the rent, but in SYNCHRONIC he’s allowed to flex more than mechanical wings.

At first, neither EMT is very appealing. They have their quirks and peculiarities and have a shorthand speak that make us know Steve and Dennis have a forged friendship. By the end, though, we have a better understanding of both men and where they are at emotionally. Steve is blunt and noncommittal. So hiding his condition from his best friend feels like the right thing to do. Dennis has his problems; why burden him with another? For Dennis, his home life is a mess. His marriage is growing loveless after the birth of his second daughter, with the oldest about to leave for college. Steve envies such a settled lifestyle, unstable as it is.

Dornan and Mackie play characters with a lived-in feel. These aren’t the EMTs you see weekly on medical dramas. They resemble Nicolas Cage in Martin Scorsese’s BRINGING OUT THE DEAD – a pair of paramedics worn down by late-night calls, the strain inevitably affecting their personal lives.

As far as the more fantastical elements of SYNCHRONIC go, Benson and Moorhead try to keep things grounded as best they can until it comes time for the CGI-enhanced visuals. Thankfully, there is a fluidity in their incorporation. Their visual style stuns as it continues to grow with every new production. Each Synchronic dosage creates a weighted sense of a past reality, and the sequences are beautiful. Actually, my favorite visual doesn’t involve Synchronic at all. It happens early on when Steve and Dennis are responding to a drug overdose and severe stab wound. As the scene progresses, I kept waiting for a cut in the action. It didn’t happen. Little things like that tend to stand out for me. Benson and Moorhead’s filmmaking style – with Benson also writing and Moorhead as the DP – is worth more than a single look. So, too, are the thematic elements and symbolism they cram into their narratives.

SYNCHRONIC is once again Benson and Moorhead raising the bar with the stories they tell. It progresses like a lucid dream until water splashes on your face and the drugs wear off. Even then, you’ll want another hit. Lucky for us this creative team is still pretty young. Time is on our side.

Grade: B+

SYNCHRONIC premiered at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX. A release date is TBA.

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