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A brief mystery of time – ‘Synchronic’

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Who doesn’t love a good filmmaking duo?

Yes, the individual auteur tends to get most of the attention – the singular visionary driving all aspects of a film – but there’s something special about a good collaborative team. The best of them are complementary pieces, individuals whose talents mesh in such a way as to elevate one another, resulting in work that is deep and rich, rendered all the more engaging through the combined viewpoints.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead might not have reached that top tier just yet, but give them time – they’re just getting started. And if their latest offering is any indication, they’re going to reach that level sooner rather than later.

“Synchronic” – co-directed by the two, with a script by Benson and cinematography by Moorhead – is a wonderful piece of well-constructed storytelling. It’s smart, taut science fiction, using the trappings of genre to craft a tale of love, loss and the deep and abiding power of friendship.

Steve (Anthony Mackie, “The Banker”) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan, “Trolls World Tour”) are paramedics living and working in New Orleans. Friends since childhood, their adult lives have gone in very different directions. Steve lives his life in a haze of booze and recreational drugs, jumping from one-night-stand to one-night-stand. Dennis is a family man, with his wife Tara (Katie Aselton, “She Dies Tomorrow”), his teenaged daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides, “The Nameless Days”) and a new baby. Both are hardworking and dedicated, though their work has led both to become a bit jaded.

They start to see some strange stuff on their calls, seemingly inexplicable deaths that simply don’t add up. These deaths coincide with the appearance of a too-new-to-be-illegal designer drug called Synchronic. The drug has proven popular, but occasionally – particularly with younger users – it has wildly unexpected effects. Effects that might shift the drug’s time-dilation from perception to reality.

In short – time travel.

Meanwhile, Dennis is dealing with some difficulties in his marriage and Steve is upping his substance consumption, so neither man is in the best shape – particularly when Steve gets some stunning health-related news. Pushing forward, Steve knows that something sinister is afoot with Synchronic, though he’s unsure of exactly what. When Brianna disappears – and her disappearance is potentially linked to the new drug – Steve realizes that he might be the only one who can find her.

But these sorts of quests can have dire consequences, and it’s left to Steve to determine if he’s willing and able to accept those consequences. He sets out to use any means he has at his disposal – including Synchronic – to find Brianna and bring her home … whatever the cost.

Time travel narratives are among the trickiest sci-fi stories to pull off, and while this one doesn’t hinge on the usual paradoxical snarling that the trope tends to evoke, there’s still enough complexity here to necessitate a deft touch – a touch the filmmakers demonstrate.

(I’m not going to spoil the third act of the film, when things really start to roll, but rest assured – Steve’s process of experimentation and discovery is fascinating to watch, a rough-and-ready scientific method-style approach that offers moments of levity and some unexpected poignancy. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty cool.)

While I’m ordinarily of the “less is more” school of exposition for genre films, time travel is an exception – some exploration of the mechanics and logistics is key. However, too much information and things either get overly convoluted or simply collapse. Benson and Moorhead give us just enough, offering a baseline explanation without getting too deep into the weeds. We get a basic understanding of the how and why without losing sight of the primary objective – the story being told.

And it is definitely a compelling story, a story of two men who truly love one another even as their respective personal concerns threaten to interfere with their friendship. It also delves into fears – fear of intimacy, fear of isolation – even as both Steve and Dennis stubbornly refuse to fully let one another in and accept any help from the other. It’s also a visually striking film, one that takes full advantage of both its time-twisting premise and its New Orleans setting to craft some spectacular screen images.

It’s interesting to consider the behind-the-camera breakdown. Co-directors are nothing new, but the idea that Benson wrote the script and Moorhead handled the cinematography adds a wrinkle. One in charge of the narrative and the other in charge of the aesthetic, all in service of the shared responsibility of direction. It’s a wildly effective creative collaboration, one where multiple viewpoints are seamlessly merged.

Mackie has always struck me as someone who is just the tiniest bit underrated as a performer. He’s great here, capturing the listlessness of a man searching for – and failing to find – connection and evoking a tough guy veneer to mask his pain, both physical and emotional. Dornan brings a much more low-key energy to his take on Dennis, but it’s the right choice, a man quietly questioning the path that he’s taken and wondering if he wants to continue following it. The two of them together are very good, finding a way to evoke the easy interactions of lifelong friends. While it’s largely a two-hander, other performances should be noted – Aselton is very good, as usual, while Ioannides does well with fairly limited screen time. Still, for the most part this is the Mackie-Dornan show.

“Synchronic” is a striking and idiosyncratic film, a tale of friendship and the search for meaning that utilizes sci-fi trappings to dig deeper into those themes. We’re all searching for something; this movie asks how far we’re willing to go – figuratively and literally – to find it. Smart, engaging genre filmmaking from a pair of impressive talents.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 23 October 2020 12:10

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