Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are known to the horror community for their films that deftly combine cosmic horror and deep emotions. Their films SPRING, RESOLUTION, and THE ENDLESS deliver sci-fi scares, as well as strong stories about the power of all kinds of love. Now they’ve been trusted with a bigger budget and bigger stars for their latest film, SYNCHRONIC. They stay true to their themes of brotherhood and cosmic happenings, but on a much larger scale that proves their talents as filmmakers.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are childhood friends who work together in New Orleans as paramedics. Despite their seemingly exciting jobs, they each lead unsatisfactory lives: Dennis is married with two kids and he resents it, while Steve sleeps around and has no real connections with anyone except Dennis. Every night they head out in their ambulance to save lives, which seems to bore them despite each calls violent and disturbing nature.
They start to realize, though, that a slew of recent mysterious deaths are linked by a new synthetic drug called Synchronic. Every young person who takes it suffers a bizarre, unexplainable death, such as being burned alive and being stabbed with a sword. They shake it off until Dennis’ eighteen-year-old daughter (Ally Ioannides) goes missing. Steve decides to try the drug to see what happens and discovers that it changes your perception and experience of time. The drug’s creator tells him it was supposed to be like DMT, but easier to buy. However, the drug actually transports those who take it back in time.
If that’s hard to wrap your head around, don’t worry; many of the Benson and Moorhead films are a bit metaphysical. But, they work hard to make sure their films are not too confusing or dense so audiences can still enjoy and become emotionally invested in the characters. SYNCHRONIC achieves that balance, creating big sci-fi centerpieces and utilizing moments of gore while also making sure the focus on the friendship between Steve and Dennis.
Mackie steals the show as Dennis, a role that allows him to dive into a character’s psyche. While he has made a name for himself as Falcon in the AVENGERS franchise, his role as Dennis lets him really stretch his legs as an actor. Dornan is also given more emotional depth than in his previous roles, but steps back to allow Mackie to truly shine as Dennis begins traveling through time.
Time travel sends Dennis to the Ice Age, to a swamp being colonized by Spanish soldiers, to a time where men proudly donned KKK hoods, and to a battle during the Civil War. These moments are beautifully designed and massive attention to detail. However, despite the delicious visuals, not much is done with the specific cultural contexts. In two instances, Dennis is confronted head on with racial violence as a group of white men wearing KKK uniforms search for him and a white man points a gun in his face and calls him a slave. While it is a fascinating idea to grapple with history’s racist past, nothing much is done outside of presenting the racism. Mackie does not dwell on it, and there are really no consequences for those that perpetuate the violence. All these moments do is show us the past without confronting it in any meaningful way. This is the one downside of SYNCHRONIC; it could have pushed an important message about not repeating the past, but instead, it merely uses examples of racism as spectacle.
While SYNCHRONIC is ultimately a sci-fi film, at its core it is a film about the power of brotherhood and friendship. Rarely do we see films that portray nuanced male friendships that include emotional vulnerability and support. Men are usually just mean to each other, or spend their time getting drunk and talking about ass. Yes, there is some of that in this friendship, but it is more than just that. It is about supporting one another through it all and being able to show actually feelings in front of each other without fear of judgement. It is perhaps SYNCHRONIC’s most important message, and one that runs through Benson and Moorhead’s filmography.
Benson and Moorhead have proved themselves big time with SYNCHRONIC. While the film has a few missteps, it is ultimately a touching and exhilarating story about time, physics, and brotherhood. The film is a shining example of the importance of trusting established indie filmmakers with studio budgets and A-list stars. Their creativity is pushing boundaries and has the potential of reshaping how we think about big budget sci-fi films. The future is bright for Benson and Moorhead, and I can’t wait to see what it holds.
Tags: Aaron Moorhead, Ally Ioannides, Anthony Mackie, Bill Oberst Jr., Film Festivals, Jamie Dornan, Jimmy LaValle, Justin Benson, Katie Aselton, New Orleans, Sci-Fi, TIFF, Time Travel, Toronto International Film Festival