Directed by Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Lately, directorial duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have made a name for themselves as the go-to guys for mind-bending mumblecore. And while some argue their low-fi approach to high concept ideas is tired and smug, for many more, they represent a way forward for genre cinema. Since their feature debut Spring, in 2014 (we’ll forget about their bit for V/H/S Viral), and its semi-sequel The Endless, they’ve been specialising in intimate flicks with grand ideas – including last year’s After Midnight, which they produced. With a bigger budget and two well-known leads, they’ve made their most accessible movie to date: another smart, sci-fi thriller with questionable sound mixing.
Not that you’d know it for much of the running time. For the first half-hour, Synchronic watches like a horror. Focusing on a pair of paramedic best friends, Steve (Mackie) and Dennis (Dornan), going around increasingly grizzly scenes, it lulls you into a feeling of false narrative security. Synchronic appears to be about a designer drug that does terrible things to all who take it. If they ever get found, that is – some users seem to vanish entirely, including Dennis’ eldest daughter Brianna (Ioannides). To save her, the only thing Steve and Dennis can do is take Synchronic themselves and see where it takes them. Elsewhere, each has another personal crisis, with Dennis having mid-life malaise and Steve drinking and drug-taking to escape the reality of the deadly brain tumour slowly killing him.
Like Benson and Moorehead’s other work, their main assets are the minimalist, down to earth scenes where it’s just these two characters hanging out. Mackie and Dornan have excellent chemistry together – playing a believable set of buddies with a long history. was especially impressed with how easily Mackie shrugs off his iconic turn as Marvel’s Falcon to become a brooding underdog. Their banter comes easily, though it’s the scenes when both let their guard down that are most rewarding. They are convincing as a pair of lifelong friends who understand the other more than they do themselves. Granted, the contrast between Dennis’ bored family man and Steve’s substance-abusing ladies’ man may sound like the seeds of a bad odd couple flick – something Dennis alludes to when he tells Steve not to be a ‘junky paramedic cliché’. But in their best moments, each is afforded a depth and emotional realism that elevates the occasionally silly material. Still, what’s frustrating is that while these scenes are the clear standouts, they are few and far between.
Without going into the specific sci-fi convention that it utilises, there’s an exciting premise at the heart of Synchronic. Unfortunately, it rarely lives up to it. The first act takes a while to find its way into the plot, and the second gets bogged down (at one point literally) in aimless exposition. As usual, Benson and Moorehead are more interested in exploring ideas than building spectacle, and much of the second and third act are Steve testing the rules. Hence there’s a real lack of jeopardy or consequences for much of the running time. Where the film should be sprinting, it saunters, with both the character drama and the quest narrative grinding to a halt. The show don’t tell approach to how Synchronic works is in contrast to the character work, which too often goes the other way. It’s almost as if the scenes are written and shot in order, and at some point, between acts 2 and 3, Benson realised they don’t have long. So Steve’s backing story, involving Hurricane Katrina, is inelegantly dumped in a scene of Dennis talking to his wife. It fills in some gaps, though this way of communicating it takes away Steve’s agency as a protagonist. It also doesn’t help that their Brianna, whose rescue should be driving the story, is relatively shallow: a disillusioned teen trope. If we don’t care about her then we don’t care about the outcome.
It’s unfortunate, as there’s still a lot to recommend about Synchronic. From the beginning, the perspective scenes are inspired. Walls fade away, the ground becomes sand, and a dull second-floor hotel room gets transformed into a lush jungle. Sure, it could benefit from a larger budget, but it’s still enjoyably immersive. Long cuts to space, though overdone, remind us that there are greater forces at work here – that the people we are seeing are missing something larger. Ironically, viewers may feel the same way because of the many unanswered questions, like why anyone wants to take Synchronic in the first place. Still, when either the characters or the story takes the centre stage, it mostly works. I’d just like there to be a lot more of these moments.
Synchronic is out now