Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s latest film, Synchronic, may initially seem like a far-out sci-fi horror flick about a time-altering drug, especially based upon the opening scene. However, the film is anchored to reality, specifically the personal struggles of two paramedics working in New Orleans. Their story and character arcs ground Synchronic in all the pain and beauty of everyday life. The result is a powerful genre film about human connection.
Like Benson and Moorhead’s previous work, Spring (2014) and The Endless (2017), Synchronic isn’t afraid to ask deep philosophical questions, but what centers the film are the stories of Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie). Each character undergoes his own struggle. Dennis is unhappy in his marriage, despite the stability and loving family that he has. Steve finds out that he only has a few weeks left to live, due to a brain tumor. Steve may seem like a playboy to Dennis, but he’s lonely, living solely with his dog and glancing at his friend’s picture-perfect marriage.
The first act of the film leans into horror. Steve and Dennis spend their time rushing from house to house, responding to calls and witnessing firsthand the effects of synchronic. In one scene, they pull up to what could be the crack house from hell. The camera moves through the grimy rooms, panning in on the police, Steve, and Dennis, as they investigate the grisly scene, discovering an axe-like weapon stuck in the wall.
The ramifications of the drug become more personal after Steve and Dennis learn that Dennis’ daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) has gone missing after taking the drug. This causes Steve to buy up all the packets of synchronic that he can find. Initially, we think that he does this to prevent others from taking it. However, with only a few weeks left to live, he decides to locate and save Dennis’ daughter. Each time he takes the drug, he transports to the past, including an ice age. He sees New Orleans as it was ages before Mardi Gras ever became a thing. Each hit he takes plops him in the middle of a different era. The psychedelic messes with the flow of time itself.
Steve quickly learns that romanticizing the past is foolish. Shortly after emerging from the ice age, he quips, “The past fucking sucks.” Later in the film, he tells Steve, “The present is a miracle, bro.” His friend needs to hear this, since he’s constantly discounting his marriage and the happy life that he’s built. Steve puts his life in danger each time that he takes synchronic. He never knows which era he’ll encounter, and even the 20th Century poses a threat, since he’s a black man living in the deep South. If he stays there for too long, he could become trapped and fade from the present.
Yet, for all of its trippy elements, some of Synchronic’s best moments are rooted in real human connection. Steve and Dennis commiserate over their problems, their failed dreams, and their thwarted desires. They do this in dingy bars and upon the rooftop where Brianna disappeared. Each character has his own deep flaws, but they also make each other better. Steve specifically helps Dennis realize what he has. Both Mackie and Dornan give earnest performances throughout the film, but Mackie’s performance really resonates. We feel for his character. He also manages to deliver a few comedic lines in an otherwise heavy film.
Benson wrote the screenplay, and as already mentioned, the story hits a lot of high notes. Moorhead handled the cinematography, and it too deserves praise. In one haunting sequence, Dennis and Steve’s ambulance pulls into an abandoned amusement park. In the background, a listless roller coaster looms beneath an inky sky. In another scene, the friends respond to a call on Bourbon Street. The usual popping tourist destination is dimly lit. The men encounter a man in a top hat. His face is painted like a skeleton, and bone protrudes from his leg. The street known for its drunken revelry becomes a hellscape. New Orleans has a rich history of ghosts and voodoo. The film was shot on location, and the city’s darker aspects come alive, thanks to both the set design and cinematography.
Synchronic successfully blends a lot of different genres, including horror, sci-fi, drama, and even a few comedic beats. Its storytelling is rich, and its characters are well-drawn. Synchronic hits deep and reminds us that maybe the present isn’t so bad after all. Keep an eye on Moorhead and Benson. They use genre filmmaking as a vehicle to address the human condition and all its frailties.
Follow HorrOrigins on Social Media