SYNCHRONIC is the latest film from directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Spring, The Endless), written by Benson, about two New Orleans paramedics whose lives get turned upside down after responding to a series of deaths related to a designer drug known as Synchronic. The film stars Jamie Dornan (The Fall), Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War), Katie Asleton (The Gift) and Ally Ioannides (Into the Badlands) and just had its World Premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
To best describe the plot, I will turn to the official TIFF synopsis: When New Orleans paramedics and close friends Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) arrive on the scene for what seems like a typical overdose, they end up stumbling upon a bizarre plot that will take them down a most unexpected path.
As with every film from Benson and Moorhead, SYNCHRONIC is a film that needs to be viewed numerous times. We learn early on that Dennis and Steve are two men who are deeply flawed and more focused on superficial gratification as opposed to the issues that each one is facing individually and with each other. Dennis is actively ignoring problems with his marriage while Steve is living the fast life of drugs, sex, and alcohol. Even when responding to calls, there is a distance and lack of empathy towards the work they are performing. However, that all changes when Steve is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and Dennis’ daughter Brianna goes missing. This all coincides when Steve realizes that a synthetic drug called Synchronic is responsible for the string of OD’s they’ve been seeing and the possible reason as to Brianna’s disappearance. After buying up the remaining stock available of the drug, Steve decides to try Synchronic where he learns just how powerful the drug is, especially to someone with his condition. It’s at this point that the film takes viewers on a wild ride through the past as Steve uses the drugs effects to search for Brianna.
If you’ve seen any of the previous films from Benson and Moorhead, you know the visuals are just as important to their movies as the characters. Washed in cool blues, browns, and grays, with pops of pale yellow/orange, the film has a gritty quality to it that perfectly aligns with the overall tone of the film. However, what truly impressed me was the seamless way in which the practical effects and CGI were used. I’ve been making a point to leave out certain plot elements for surprise purposes but once we see certain characters taking synchronic, the visual execution is nothing short of astounding. That said, SYNCHRONIC is a perfect example of CGI done well without overly relying on it. One scene, in particular, that really stayed with me was that of Steve receiving radiation for his cancer. We see him in a machine with a dotted mask of sorts and a red beam going over his face. Both of my parents have each dealt with getting radiation and seeing this play out was a powerful image for me and gave me a look into what people deal with when receiving said treatment. Once you combine the imagery along with the many symbolic clues throughout the film, you end up with a heartbreaking yet stunning film that allows the viewers to experience time and its effects on the past, present, and future in a way that helps in navigating themes such as death and acceptance.
As for the acting, both Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie are terrific, but Mackie really ends up being the one that shines. It’s clear that this is Mackie’s film and he does a tremendous job carrying the majority of its weight. I found myself going through a series of emotions towards both Steve and Dennis – starting with dislike and ending with a better understanding of where both of them are in life. I personally found Dennis and Steve to be a study on how people deal differently with disappointment and trauma and how it’s not always in the way we are hoping for. Sometimes, we think that by hiding the challenges and/or the horrors that we are facing, we will spare our loved ones, but in actuality, they are the ones we need to rely on the most. Dornan and Mackie portray characters that are relatable, that are going through real-world scenarios that can be quite harrowing and responding to those situations in a way that many of us most likely would, which is a testament to the writing of Benson. Even with all the fantastical elements, Benson’s character writing has always felt grounded in reality.
I think it goes without saying that I absolutely love this film. That said, there’s a lot to take in and a lot mull over once the credits have ended. I found myself easily obsessed with all the symbolism but I knew while watching the film that I would need to revisit it in order to truly understand everything, something that I look forward to doing in the future. I also think SYNCHRONIC is Benson and Moorhead’s strongest film to date, especially in regards to their camera technique (I’m still blown away by the continuous shot that we see early on in the film) and their ability to weave a sci-fi narrative that is so immensely emotional and impactful. SYNCHRONIC is like watching a surreal dream come to life in front of you while awake and is a reminder that we need more original content such as this. All in all, SYNCHRONIC has made me look back in time, at the decisions I have made and the moments I wish I could change. It’s a film that will stay with me for a very long time and has rightfully positioned itself as one of the best films of the year.