Writing a good time travel film means coming up with an angle that has not been considered before, whilst incorporating shifting timelines, all within the rules that the film establishes. The usual approach is to attempt to make the film very clever, as if it can be smarter than the last time travel film, it must be good. Sometimes, clever can be brilliant, but it can also be a distraction. Synchronic is a time travel film, but it is not attempting to be smarter than any other. Instead, it is a film that looks at time travel differently, and in that sense it is incredibly original.
Helmed by directing pair Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Synchronic is an exploration of the limits of time as a construct, using ideas brought about by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine but presenting them in an entirely different fashion. As with their other collaborations, the script is written by Benson, Moorhead provides the cinematography, and they direct together. They are a unique pairing, creating oddly reflective and unsettling tales. The brilliance of their visuals are delivered through subtlety, and Synchronic has many moments which are wonderfully interesting to behold.
The plot follows a pair of paramedics played by Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. Mackie is a single man who lives from one-night-stand to one-night-stand and craves stability and a family, whereas Dornan is a married man with an eighteen-year-old daughter and a newborn baby, both with his wife. Dornan is credible and convincing as he presents a self-involved man longing for single life and jealous of his friend’s hedonistic existence, but it is Mackie who shines here. Mackie has proven himself consistently to be a solid leading man along with a fine character actor, and he delivers an emotive and complex performance. As the film progresses, they are called out to several injuries or fatalities where a new designer drug, Synchronic, is involved. Dornan is struggling with his elder child leaving home as his younger arrives, whilst Mackie faces his own mortality as he discovers a lingering illness that was previously undiagnosed. As their two lives clash, Mackie begins investigating Synchronic, with his efforts increasing as Dornan’s life spirals out of his control.
Although the narrative is less convoluted than many other time travel films, it is the principle of the travel itself that is interesting here. It is brilliant in its simplicity: a drug frees the mind from the constraints of linear time, allowing the user to experience other time periods. There are set rules that are logical, and despite the slightly barmy sounding premise, this is a grounded and consistent film that remains plausible.
The visuals of time periods bleeding into one another are fantastic. So much thought has gone into what appear to be simple shots, but they are in fact outstandingly complicated and, like the time travel mechanics and the plot itself, excellent in their simplicity. Synchronic wears its research lightly. The soundtrack is equally strong yet subtle, much like the editing and performances. The only let-down, for me, was some of the dialogue. There were moments of speech which were too on-the-nose, with exposition included that did not need to be there. This is a Benson and Moorhead habit, however, and forgivable considering the achievement of the rest of the film.
Synchronic is not what I expected, but that is exactly what I expected when going into it as its directors have always delivered in a surprising way. I enjoyed it and will be watching it again, and though I do not think it is their best film, Benson and Moorhead have done a fantastic job. For me, however, this is possibly Mackie’s finest work to date. If you get a chance, watch it.