'Synchronic' Review: Justin Benson And Aaron Moorhead Play With Time And Space Again [TIFF 2019]

Note: it is nearly impossible to talk about this film without giving away some small spoilers, so be warned. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the filmmakers behind ResolutionSpring, and The Endless, have assembled a unique, familiar series of films that all deal with the same theme: time. The persistence of it, the lack of understanding of it, and the potential ability to control it. They're so focused on the subject that you might call it an obsession at this point. The duo's latest, Synchronic, takes that obsession to a whole new level. It's their biggest, most ambitious movie yet.

Paramedics Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) cruise the many storied streets of New Orleans, answering calls to stumble upon the dead and dying. They're not doctors, they're not healers, and they're not very heroic. They're just two dudes who know how to patch up gushing wounds long enough to whisk victims to get real medical care – even though not everyone makes it.

Steve is listless, prone to frequent one-night-stands and late-night drinking. Dennis is a family man, living with wife Tara (Katie Aselton), teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides), and a newborn baby. But while he may appear to be the member of the team with his life together, Dennis is just as adrift as Steve, barely able to keep his marriage together despite – or perhaps because of – the arrival of a newborn. In short, if you knew who these two guys were personally, you wouldn't exactly feel relieved if they pulled up in an ambulance to help you during a medical emergency.

One night, the pair end up at a run-down house and confront a particularly strange situation. A teenage girl has overdosed, and her father is dead – stabbed with a sword, no less. The sword is found at the scene, but it's unusual in more than one way: for one thing, it looks incredibly old. For another, it's spotted with more holes than a slice of swiss cheese, as if the sword was in the process of disintegrating very, very slowly. The sword isn't the only item on-site – there's also the wrapper for what appears to be a designer drug called Synchronic.

Before long, Steve and Dennis are turning up at more and more inexplicable scenes where they continue to find both people injured, or killed, in peculiar ways, always with an empty packet of the mysterious Synchronic nearby. Steve grows intrigued by it all, while Dennis doesn't seem to care much one way or another. That all changes quickly when his daughter Brianna vanishes – a Synchronic wrapper near the spot where she was last seen.

While Dennis essentially shuts down, Steve is spurned into action, investigating both Brianna's disappearance and Synchronic, convinced that one has something to do with the other. It sends the character down a weird, often shocking path where the very limits of space and time end up being tested. This allows Benson and Moorhead to unleash one of their biggest stories yet – one loaded with special effects and journeys across great distances. It's almost epic in a way, while also maintaining the intimacy that's so essential to all of their work.

In addition to time, Benson and Moorhead also love to focus on duos, and while Synchronic starts off that way, with Dennis and Steve working together, it eventually turns into almost entirely Steve's movie, with Mackie taking center stage, and making for a great protagonist. As the events of the narrative grow stranger and stranger, Mackie's Steve begins to grow beyond the ambitionless state we first met him in, and watching Mackie become more and more focused makes for some surprisingly compelling entertainment.

But it's the sci-fi/horror elements that are driving Synchronic, enabling Benson and Moorhead to both have fun, blow minds, and create several legitimate moments of horror – moments where characters find themselves up against antagonists who are very much real, and yet also somehow preternatural. It's fascinating and engaging. But the center can't quite hold. After the film sets Steve on his journey, it more or less grinds to a halt and refuses to go much further. It's a pity because there's a true forward momentum to the first half of the film, and the sudden stop creates a whiplash effect that the proceedings never fully recover from.

Yet Synchronic is ten times more inventive and original than 90% of the big-budget, high-profile junk major studios regurgitate monthly. In a movie landscape that grows more and more dire, we're lucky to have original voices like Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10