Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are obsessed with time. In each of the writing/directing duo’s features—2012’s Resolution, 2015’s Spring, and 2018’s The Endless—the ability to travel backwards or forwards in history, or to exist eternally, affords insights into the nature of self, and the knotty emotional and psychological dynamics that govern our lives. Cleverly idiosyncratic, they’re genre filmmakers who use their twisty temporal sci-fi conceits for incisive and moving explorations of the human condition.
That remains true with Synchronic (in theaters and drive-ins Oct. 23), Moorhead and Benson’s most high-profile and mainstream-accessible release to date. Having worked wonders on relatively low budgets and with largely unknown casts—The Endless, for example, starred the directors themselves as siblings—the partners’ latest ups the marquee-name quotient via headliners Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan, here playing New Orleans paramedics grappling with dilemmas of both a familiar and head-spinning variety. No matter that their leads are well-known Hollywood players, however, Moorhead and Benson haven’t lost their touch for imbuing out-there fantasy with melodramatic poignancy, the result being a confident, crazy and surprisingly affecting saga about grief, loss, longing, the dangerous allure of escape, and the interconnectedness of everything.
Per the pair’s tradition, Synchronic ultimately hinges on an everlasting time loop. Rather than getting bogged down in paradoxes, though, it maintains strict focus on the here-and-now predicament of ambulance medics Steve (Mackie) and Dennis (Dornan), the former a single ladies’ man with a fondness for getting drunk and hopping into bed with women, and the latter a husband to Tara (Katie Aselton) and father to both a newborn and 18-year-old Brianna (Ally Ioannides). Best friends since high school, Steve and Dennis are stuck in a rut, discontent with their respective stations in life and unsure of how to appreciably improve their circumstances. They’re middle-aged guys who don’t understand what they have (and need), and their personal plights are soon complicated by a series of work calls where Steve finds first an ancient French coin and, shortly thereafter, a packet labeled “Synchronic.”
When synchronic is subsequently spotted at a second call—where a woman has suffered a bizarre snake bite in her hotel room, and her boyfriend has plummeted to his death in an elevator shaft—Steve’s suspicions are raised. Synchronic begins with this traumatized couple’s wild hallucinatory trip on the narcotic, although it’s the opening shot of their hands clasped together, and then separating, that truly speaks to the film’s underlying thematic concerns. The process of holding tight and letting go, not to mention the way in which we’re all intertwined, is central to Moorhead and Benson’s story, which soon additionally burdens Steve with a bombshell: he has a fatal brain tumor.
As it turns out, that’s a case of good news/bad news, given that Steve’s affliction affects his pineal gland in a manner that makes him ideally susceptible to the effects of synchronic. Of course, Steve doesn’t have an immediate desire to ingest a potentially lethal synthetic pill. Yet thanks to an awkward run-in with its creator, he discovers its true magic: it transports users to a random point in the past. When Brianna takes synchronic on a friend’s balcony and promptly vanishes without a trace, Steve—figuring that, since he’s dying, he has nothing left to lose—begins experimenting with the substance, thus initiating journeys back to the Ice Age, a conquistador-populated bayou, and other distant Gulf Coast periods.
From aerial shots of crisscrossing nighttime streets, to sights of latticed bridges and a mesh mask and red X-pattern light on Steve’s face during his MRIs, Synchronic is awash in interlocking and diagonal line imagery. Entrancing snapshots of the Milky Way amplify the overarching impression of a universe whose countless separate entities are threaded together in a fashion at once invisible and undeniable. A rock inscribed with the misspelled word “Allways” suggests two separate notions about the infinite, even as it also plays a functional narrative role in Steve and Dennis’ odyssey, which picks up after Steve begins popping Synchronic in his free time, recording his experiences with a video camera, and figuring out the strange rules that govern his unique trips.
“Entrancing snapshots of the Milky Way amplify the overarching impression of a universe whose countless separate entities are threaded together in a fashion at once invisible and undeniable.”
Synchronic develops its characters’ individual issues and interpersonal relations with care and compassion, all while simultaneously lacing scenes with clues to its mysteries. It’s a delicate balancing act that further lends the proceedings a knitted cohesiveness, such that Steve’s fear of death and Dennis’ lament about his unhappy marriage (rooted in the notion that once you meet the love of your life, it won’t ever happen again) are both associated with the larger quest to use synchronic to travel back in time to find Brianna. At every turn, Moorhead and Benson imbue their material with pressing notions about mortality, dreams, unease about the future, and yearning for the past, be it via the recurring alarm of Steve’s wristwatch or the directors’ circular camerawork, which rotates on its axis, glides through spaces, and pans between characters—conveying a powerful sense of the space between them—with exhilarating fluidity.
Augmented by an audioscape of disharmonious electronic noises, Synchronic’s low-key virtuosity is married to understated performances from Mackie and Dornan that locate a genuine strain of mid-life malaise, where the grass perpetually looks greener on the other side, and day-to-day drudgery turns every waking hour tedious. Blind to what’s important, Dennis and Steve are lost souls navigating a slightly unreal urban landscape, and the actors’ easygoing and empathetic rapport grounds the fanciful action. Utilizing canny jump-cuts, and cross-cutting between various time frames within a given sequence, Moorhead and Benson formally express not only Dennis and Steve’s wayward states of mind, but how what’s come before, and what’s yet to occur, are all fundamentally related to what’s happening at this very moment.
“The present is a miracle,” muses Steve at film’s conclusion, thus articulating the everyday carpe-diem spirit that guides Synchronic. Ending not with a bang but with a touching act of sacrifice and a handshake, it’s a moving portrait of embracing what’s good and important while you can. It’s also reconfirmation that Moorhead and Benson are genre auteurs with few equals.