Directors – Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead – 2019 – US – Cert. 15 – 102m
Two New Orleans paramedics stumble upon a designer drug causing weird hallucinations and inexplicable deaths in this mind-bending science fiction yarn – – on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday, April 5th
The prior films of creative partners Benson & Moorhead (The Endless, 2017; Spring, 2014; Resolution, 2012) inevitably set the bar high since they’ve consistently astonished audiences with their mind-bending narratives. Normally I watch films once then review them, but on this occasion I’ve had the privilege of wilfully watching Synchronic three times in the last year or so. This in itself tells you something about this film’s narrative pleasures. And given that Marvel recently signed the duo up to direct episodes of Moon Knight for Disney+, it would seem Hollywood is of a similar opinion.
Its extraordinary story involves two New Orleans paramedics whose characters completely engage you and pulls you in. Which is just as well because they stumble on some pretty strange stuff in the course of their work – in particular, calls involving trauma and sometimes death in the aftermath of bad drug trips.
It opens with a couple at home taking some hallucinogenic drugs and seeing / experiencing some extremely weird goings on. Like the TV and living room wall behind turning into a primitive jungle and a poisonous snake biting your leg. Or going into a lift only to watch it disappear into thin air around you as you descend several floors. Our two paramedics don’t turn up at the aftermath of all this ’til some way into the movie. First, they get called to a house where the dead victim of a bad trip lies on the ground with a knife wound in his chest. When the blade finally turns up, it’s a huge, curved, three foot beast of a weapon.
As the pair keep getting called to death scenes like this, one of them, Steve (Anthony Mackie), keeps noticing packets labelled Synchronic, the name of the designer drug involved. It’s never clear exactly how the drug came to be what it is, only that it’s bad news for those who mess around with it.
Steve is ill at ease with himself, incapable of developing any long term sexual relationship even before he’s diagnosed with an brain tumour formed by a particularly aggressive form of cancer that doesn’t leave him long to live. It helps that he’s played by the charismatic Mackie, familiar to many from Marvel’s Avengers films as well as being the lead in stunning, little seen homelessness drama Shelter (Paul Bettany, 2014). Meanwhile, Dennis’ (Jamie Dornan) has a marriage is on the rocks with the only thing keeping him going his 18 year old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides). She vanishes at the scene of a verandah party to which the two men are called where they learn she too took Synchronic.
A little note about the character of Brianna. Although very much a secondary character to the two buddy leads, she’s nicely fleshed out in the script even if it doesn’t quite pass the Bechdel test. Would that more writers wrote roles for women, subsidiary or main, like this one.
Since neither trailer nor stills give anything away, neither will I. That said, while on first viewing as someone familiar with the Benson & Moorhead oeuvre the film was something of a disappointment, on subsequent viewings it has just got better and better. Benson wrote it – and he doesn’t miss a trick – while Moorhead shot it. Both produced it and edited the film with their editing partner Michael Felker, so they’re making the film they want – clever, intelligent and mercifully free of lowest common denominator, Hollywood dumbing down. Peel away the gripping and constantly surprising plot – a fresh and unusual take on the old science fiction subject of time travel – and you’re left with a compelling story about two damaged, male individuals who aren’t very good at getting on in the world but nevertheless try to do the best they can. References to Hurricane Katrina provide additional insight.
Unlike anything else you’ll see this year, unless you delve into the Benson & Moorhead back catalogue – which you can do by clicking the links in this review – this is highly recommended.
Synchronic is out on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday, April 5th.
VoD: Friday, January 29th.
Digital platforms: Monday, March 29th.