TIFF 2019 Review: Justin Benson And Aaron Moorhead Hit It Big With SYNCHRONIC

The Filmmakers behind THE ENDLESS are back with a freaky science fiction tale.

It’s been exciting watching filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead grow from outing to outing. Their previous film, The Endless, was an impressive H.P. Lovecraft-inspired indie horror film that also featured Benson and Moorhead in the starring roles. With their fourth film, Synchronic, they’re strictly behind the camera, and working with a bigger budget—one large enough to warrant significant star power in Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. Benson and Moorhead seem eager to stretch their wings this time around, and Synchronic proves the pair are up to the challenge, though they overstep their bounds a little.

Synchronic is a twisty, gory sci-fi mystery, with Mackie and Dornan playing Steve and Dennis, long-time buddies and paramedics in New Orleans. Over the course of several weeks, Steve and Dennis encounter a series of perplexing drug-related deaths in which the victims suffer from bizarre injuries that don’t always match the circumstances in which their bodies are found—for instance, a woman receives a snake bite inside her locked hotel room. Her boyfriend, who’s fallen down an elevator shaft, has gruesome injuries consistent with a fall from a much greater height.

All the deaths are connected to a single drug: a synthetic hallucinogen called Synchronic. When Dennis’ 18-year-old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) vanishes after taking some at a party, Steve commits himself to finding out what happened to her, and to destroying all existing forms of the drug. An encounter with Synchronic’s mysterious creator reveals shocking details about the effects of the drug, and Brianna’s possible whereabouts, at which point Synchronic pivots from dark, atmospheric crime drama to idea-driven hard science fiction in the vein of Shane Carruth’s Primer.

Synchronic does a good job of setting up weirdness early on that belies Benson and Moorhead’s Eldritch Horror roots. The ultimate reveal of the film takes a turn away from that particular subgenre, but the movie does feature a lot of impressive visual effects that have a Weird Fiction slant to them. Early visits to victims’ homes feature weird, cryptic scribblings on the wall, bizarre murder weapons and artfully nasty wounds. Someone’s drug trip results in a creepy melding of nature and architecture. There’s also a gloomy, subdued tint over the whole film that together with its Louisiana setting recall some of the more enigmatic and speculative elements of True Detective’s first season.

The eventual conceit that Benson and Moorhead introduce becomes interesting in a completely different way, and brings the mystery of the earlier scenes into a sharp logic, one that makes the victims’ deaths even more tragic and fascinating in retrospect. That idea runs into trouble, however, when it comes to the movie’s racial politics. Steve’s identity as a black man results in some situations that put his life in danger, but aren’t addressed beyond the superficial, and never lead to further conversations about systemic injustice and the way it’s informed by the past. Given the opportunity the plot presents for that discussion, this feels like wasted potential. 

There’s a certain lack of consideration in Synchronic that tarnishes its reputation slightly. However, artistically there are some very interesting ideas presented here, and the filmmakers’ imagination, both visually and in the script, is well worth noting. Its suggestion of the past as a nightmare and the present as an undervalued miracle also puts an interesting spin on contemporary conversations about historical injustice and the grip it holds on the present. It’s just that this particular idea needs more perspective and depth to fully develop. In any case, it’s still a good step forward for a pair of filmmakers whose voice continues to develop in a unique creative direction, and whose conjoined star only promises to rise further from here.