2020, R, 104 min. Directed by Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead. Starring Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ioannides, Bill Oberst Jr., Martin Bats Bradford, Natasha Tina Liu.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 23, 2020
Pick a word to sum up the strange and wonderful sci-fi-esque films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and it would be "compassion," a theme that continues in Synchcronic. Expanded by eight minutes since its Fantastic Fest 2019 debut, the writer/director duo's fourth film is as captivating and bizarre as any of their earlier work, and just as perfectly character-driven. Their debut, 2012's Resolution, was a story of addiction and friendship wrapped up in a time loop – a setting they revisited for sibling road trip The Endless. In between, they melded cosmic horror with vacation romance in Spring, yet throughout there has been an underlying strand of lightness, of optimism (sometimes misplaced) about the human condition. Not in the opening moments of Synchronic, where gruesome and inexplicable fates are delivered to New Orleans drug users.
But this isn't the Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street New Orleans, or the romanticized pre-Katrina NoLa. It's a city where two paramedics – Steve (Mackie) and Dennis (Dornan) – spend most of their shifts dosing up OD victims with Narcan. Times change when a new brand of synthetic ayahuasca starts ripping through their community, and the deaths starting getting weird: Spontaneous human combustion, snake bites in a fancy hotel room, impaled on swords. It's interesting stuff until Dennis' college-age daughter, Brianna (Ioannides), disappears and Dennis takes it on himself to find her. His methods have to be unconventional – this is Moorhead and Benson, after all – but he's got more impetus than most to save the young woman that he sees as the niece he never had.
But this is not some whacked-out drug trip movie, or scolding afterschool anti-drug special. This is anti-psychedelia, grounded in the strangeness of true life. Benson and Moorhead have always used their films to talk about relationships and connections, but Synchronic takes a twist by being about a disconnected man. Mackie plays Steve as a man who has retained one friendship as his sole link to humanity, keeping everyone else at a surly remove. The tabs of synchronic that he takes as part of his hunt send him on a spiral that seems ever further away from the everyday, but Benson and Moorhead's deep humanity always links the story back to the premise that has governed their work, that spark of gratitude for what we have now. The pair also weave a story of our connection to the past, most especially of New Orleans' across the centuries. It's told with delicacy, reminiscent of Ethan Hawke's monologue about corruption and identity in RZA's recent Cut Throat City. While it seems like a tangent, it's really the heart of a movie about a man trying to find a reason to be connected to a world that is so flimsy and transient.
Unlike their earlier, undeniably talky work, Benson and Moorhead use Mackie's often solitary bruised and bowed performance, and a swirling mix of wonder and dread, to tell Synchronic's story. They've always taken a cerebral approach to expressing emotion through conversation: This time, the outsider makes them embrace their open hearts more visibly than ever.
Read our interview with the filmmakers from Fantastic Fest 2019, "Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are Synchronic, Sept. 19, 2019.