The relentless Marvel behemoth has once again scouted some indie talent. Continuing its ongoing desire to control all the eyeballs they can, the studio’s attention has now turned to the two-headed director team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead – the duo having become darlings to a subset of film fans. With Marvel snagging the pair for their forthcoming series of cult character ‘Moon Knight’, there is a fair chance that the directors will have a little more attention thrust upon them. Before then? They have had enough time to smash another home run out of the park.
Synchronic is the duo’s biggest feature to date. It is their most straightforward since Spring (2014). That may not be the best word used to describe their time-bending premise. However, in terms of how the story plays out, it is a touch more conventional than Resolution (2012) or The Endless (2017). Conventional is by no means bad. It is clear however, that there is a lot less ambiguity with the film’s goings-on. The conceit of a synthetic drug which can pull its user through time is given one very exploratory exchange. The moment removes some of the mystery of the procedural but makes the proceedings less head-scratching then previous entries.
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What has made Benson and Moorhead indie directors du jour has been their ability to build fascinating worlds with thought-provoking concepts on minuscule budgets. All this while giving their characters a considerable amount of pathos. Synchronic continues this tradition. This time around the players are more famous faces, Anthony Mackie and Jamie Doran, but the overall mission statement remains the same. The bait is the idea that time and space can be perceived like grooves on a record. The hook, however, is the strained relationship between two EMT’s grappling with their weighty problems.
The leap from relative unknowns to well-known names of Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan is a comfortable one. Mackie, an actor mostly seen in a solid support role, steps up to the plate as Steve, the pill-popping, heavy drinking, and severely ill paramedic. Mackie, so often an underrated presence in movies, lets loose here in a science fiction piece which holds none of the trappings of recent bigger-budgeted features. A character dealing with low-level prejudice, who is stricken by illness and in conflict with his best friend. Synchronic makes an argument that, even at such low points, living in the present is still beautiful. Even as an African American.
The point may be contentious for two white filmmakers to make. Steve is the type of character who could be easily written as a basic stereotype. However, in the present-day arguments involving representation, Mackie’s “armchair physicist” is a well-formed and smart black character looking for a purpose in a way not often seen in such sci-fi. Dornan, who plays Mackie’s unhappily married friend Dennis, gives the actor a chance to step further away from some of his wider known, more ill-fated acting choices. His portrayal of a scruffy paramedic holds far more depth than his turns as a certain clean-cut billionaire. Like Blindspotting (2018), the companionship between the two feels lived-in. When we consider the setting of Louisiana, it feels plausible.
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It is this laser beamed focus on the human centre which makes Synchronic so effective. Much like their previous features, the film happily bounces between genres with remarkable fluency. Synchronic could easily be a showcase for Anthony Mackie to show his Easy Rollins credentials. However, the bizarre opening sequence, with its drifting, floating camerawork is a strong reminder that we are sitting in sci-fi territory. Flashbacks of floating caskets during the storm of Katrina hint towards horror. But the film’s most potent scene involves Mackie and Dornan pontificating about life and death with honesty which would not feel out of place in a piece of Swedish arthouse. This is what the two-headed writer/director duo does best. Synchronic feels as if the creators could have its characters play pool with the planets while keeping you invested with their relationship crisis in between shots. Marvel has done well with its coup.