For those unacquainted with the directorial team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, I’d highly recommend The Endless and Spring from their previous repertoire, as well as this new one. They’re progressively creating their unique niche in the filmmaking market with intriguing, thought-provoking films that often entangle reality as both a concept and construct, and creatively revel with the accepted ideals of how the mind functions.
With Synchronic, they’re at their complex brain games again but in a way that’s both expansive and particularly focused on the human condition. In this new narrative, we follow friends Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), two New Orleans paramedics but at quite different points in their lives. While Dennis is married with two children – a 1-year-old and an 18-year-old – Steve has no real connections that we initially know of, bar his dog Hawking, and spends most of rest of his time drinking and sleeping around.
But before we get deeper, the film begins with an opening shot that slowly comes into focus and, in truth, you’ve got to admire an introductory ruse that takes time to reveal what you’re looking at. Starting out of focus, you will eventually realise what you’re looking at but you’re already questioning all the things you thought it might have been, and this is a great example of the directorial duo playing with visuals, always questioning what you think you see and what you don’t.
As a storm moves in overhead, we join a couple sharing a good time in a Motel room and taking some kind of pill. As the effects of this drug take hold, they begin to see a world beyond ‘reality’ but at this stage we, of course, don’t know if that’s just a trick of the brain, or if something else is going on. It’s difficult to tell if we’re looking at the past, the future, or even what the hell is going on, but it is deftly peculiar.
Cut to our lead pair, on a job as paramedics, who are heading out to either pick up bodies from a terrible death scene or help junkies during a momentary final slide of life. This first scene holds more clues than you first realise, so pay attention and keep the strangeness in your mind. It’s a smart early scene, giving you visual moments to take in (like a Derren Brown setup) and because it plays out as one shot, you unwittingly become a part of whatever is happening.
But here’s some misdirection because Steve accidentally gets a used needle in his hand and must be properly checked out by the medical team, back in the Hospital. During test, it’s discovered he has an aggressive tumour in his brain, and one that could be terminal. In the early stages, he doesn’t let Dennis know about the diagnoses and because all Dennis sees is Steve recklessly drinking, he just thinks he’s losing control of his life, and does try to find out if he’s okay but to no avail. As their work life continues, and over a few callouts, we see incidents that include sword stabbings, something-like human combustion and snake bites. All these appear to link to people using a synthetic drug called Synchronic but just as Dennis is more concerned about Steve’s general behaviour, his 18-year-old daughter disappears, and it might also be related to Synchronic.
Now, avoiding major spoilers, let’s just say that the visual work and scene structure, with some downright beautiful editing, is everything throughout Synchronic, the directorial/writing team are consistently sliding out small clues and ideals to something else going on beyond the ordinary. I felt a major essence of shows like The X-Files during its finest story arcs, and even a little dash of The Mothman Prophecies in its vibe. But while the wider story might certainly be strange, the base-level narrative encircles Steve and Dennis’ friendship, their shifting times and situations, the deeper reality of the everyday and how it affects some more than others. It’s also about the pressures we put on each other, both in and out of relationships, and this is coupled with clever, deep conversations about the here and now, enjoying the present – and especially after 2020, it’s easily relatable.
Synchronic is scattered with signs that will ultimately all come together and because it’s high concept on a low-level budget, it concentrates on the right things, whilst also blowing your mind when it needs to. There are a few issues with minor plot lines, that don’t really pull through (and it’s not as strong as The Endless) but Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan give it their all, creating an authentic friendship out of dark situations. Along the way we’ll delve into how memories distort, the age-old story of personal regrets and doubts – which I only think you start to realise in your thirties – and the always intriguing truth about random events, chance and luck.
This is an exciting and contemplative trip, of that there’s no doubt, which also contains an incredibly poignant handshake, which feels utterly right when the jigsaw falls into place.