Jamie Dornan as Dennis Dannelly
Anthony Mackie as Steve Denube
Ally Ioannides as Brianna Dannelly
Katie Aselton as Tara
Co-Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead; Written by Justin Benson
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have delivered hit after hit in the indie horror world, traversing every subject from body horror to convent life and time-looping madness and with their latest effort, Synchronic, they find themselves offering a unique new take on the time travel genre and while it features plenty of visually stunning imagery and a mesmerizing exploration of existentialism, albeit a bit of a heavy-handed one.
When New Orleans paramedics and longtime best friends Steve and Dennis are called to a series of bizarre and gruesome accidents, they chalk it up to a mysterious new drug found at the scene. But after Dennis’ oldest daughter disappears, Steve stumbles upon a terrifying truth about the supposed psychedelic that will challenge everything he knows about reality — and the flow of time itself.
The directing duo waste no time in establishing the film’s very hypnotic and dreamlike tone, opening it up with a couple trying out the titular drug only to see the horrific effects that can come with it and it’s an intriguing start before introducing viewers to Steve and Dennis and their relationship with one another.
The married man and ladies man friendship dynamic is one utilized plenty of times in the film world and, though seen executed far better in other stories with better-written characters, comes across as mostly believable. Be it the subtle but enjoyable chemistry between Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie or Benson and Moorhead’s inherent knack for knowing how to write a close friendship akin to their own, when Steve and Dennis are on-screen together it’s usually a compelling thing to watch.
The problem also arises from this, however, as when the two are apart and the film chooses to focus on one or the other the writing seems to lose its creative balance and clearly favor one over the other. Subjected to constant flashbacks of his time with his wife and daughter before the latter’s disappearance as he comes home from his graveyard shifts, Dornan’s Dennis feels woefully underwritten and largely thrown to the side even when he’s supposedly being given the spotlight. The Irish star doesn’t necessarily deliver a poor performance in the role, but the material he’s given frequently leaves him looking stiff and very wooden.
Once the film finally — and I mean finally, after quite a slow start — gets to its time-traveling element, things become really interesting and Mackie gets the chance to illustrate his effortless charisma and Benson and Moorhead’s somewhat dark sense of humor. The visual depiction of Steve moving through time is such an incredible sight and beautifully thought out, keeping audiences guessing as to just when he’s going to land.
Unfortunately, even with as minimal a time travel plot as the film has in comparison to other genre fare, the film finds itself struggling to stay consistent with the rules it’s creating or even make some of them clear enough for the viewer to moderately comprehend. Its seven-minute lasting period seems to only exist when it’s essential to the plot, the nature at which someone or something can come back from the past goes back and forth from a more simplistic explanation to then throwing the rule out the window for a few devastating turns and an Inception-esque ending.
Another of the film’s problems arises in its reflection on life and death and humanity’s place in the world throughout time, which begins subtle and succinct but eventually progresses into far-too-on-the-nose explanations that feel almost as though the filmmakers could have just put up title cards with their same sentiments or hosted a TED Talk to express their ideas. It starts to feel less like a poignant and moving exploration and debate of the soul worthy of the indie genre and more like a pretentious explanation a blockbuster film would deliver to its viewer to make sure a general audience understands what the filmmaker is getting at.
Synchronic may not break Benson and Moorhead’s winning streak, as it’s still a fairly compelling new take on the time travel genre and features a solid performance from Mackie, stellar direction from the duo and some beautiful scenery, but for those unfamiliar with their previous work, its pacing and heavy-handed dialogue may prove to be a bit of a slog to navigate through.