REVIEW: Synchronic (2019)

dir. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead.

When it comes to low-budget / high-concept sci-fi Benson and Moorhead are the undisputed wunderkind of genre indies. With their triptych of Resolution (2012), Spring (2014) and The Endless (2017) they’re essentially cinematic cousins to Christopher Nolan: these are the kind of ideas-heavy, time-shuffling head-scratchers that the Tenet-helmer might be making if he’d remained outside the studio system; films that assume their audience is smart and dares them to keep up.

In this sense Synchronic is a natural progression, the presence of Anthony Mackie (currently flying high on Disney+ with The Falcon and the Winter Solider) demonstrating a considerable step up for the directing duo in star power and audience appeal: alas it’s also is a half-step back from their previous feature in terms of impact.

Mackie and Jamie Dornan star as New Orleans paramedics who come across the titular street-drug, a substance linked to a series of horrific deaths that appear to take the user on the ultimate trip, one that blurs the line between pharmacological and supernatural high and may just transport them through space and/or time. It’s a great set up, and one given personal stakes when Dornan’s daughter disappears after taking a tab, Mackie making it his mission to track his best-friend’s child down on a reality-bending rescue attempt before his own brain tumour takes his life.

There’s a lot to unpack here, not least a re-evaluation of Stateside history through the eyes of a time-fluid 21st Century African American. Mackie – himself from New Orleans – is compelling, but the film never gives his experiences room to breathe; similarly the pacing throughout much of the second act – which is basically an unconventional missing-persons procedural – lacks a sense of urgency, characters adrift in the ideas rather than motivated by the emotional trauma one might expect.

Regardless of such shortcomings there’s still much to admire, with Benson and Moorhead further solidifying their brand of intelligent genre story-telling. New recruits to the cult may be thrilled, but with even greater treasures in their back-catalogue there’s a sense that their most dazzling creations still lie ahead, in the future.

Tim Coleman

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