Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
If you haven’t seen Spring, the 2014 feature from directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, do seek it out—especially if you have a strong interest in genre-bending storytelling. My Seattle Weekly review began with this sentence: “Until the female lead is revealed to be a grossly mutating shapeshifter who devours animals in order to keep her human appearance from dissolving into gooey ick, Spring could be mistaken for a relaxed little indie about budding love.” And indeed, the film seems to be in a firmly discursive Richard Linklater groove when the gunk starts to flow.
Benson and Moorhead followed that film with The Endless, which I missed, but Spring was good enough to make me seek out their new one, Synchronic. And if it seems to wobble a little too recklessly between beer-commercial sincerity and snazzy showing off, it still clicks often enough to create its share of authentic sci-fi shivers.
The setting is New Orleans, rendered here as a suggestively eerie landscape, mostly seen after dark. Two fiercely loyal friends work as paramedics on the night shift: Steve (Anthony Mackie, in a fluid leading-man performance), a bachelor who likes to let the good times roll, and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), a long-married man whose relationship with his wife (Katie Aselton) might be showing signs of fatigue. During their nocturnal rounds, Steve and Dennis come across a handful of exceedingly bizarre injury scenes, all due to the use of an obscure new recreational drug, Synchronic.
Let’s just say that Synchronic has effects that puncture the time-space continuum, and that its use hits home in a unique way for our heroes. Benson’s screenplay is ingenious, even if the science feels extremely far-fetched; there’s a lot I didn’t buy, but if the premise is a good one, I’ll forgive a lot. What’s difficult to forgive is the indulgent repetition of the two men professing their bro-hood, which make one rather long for the days of tight-lipped heroes. But these Millennials will have their own style, and the film’s earnestness is one thing that distinguishes it from many contemporary genre exercises.
The showing-off part is enjoyable: There’s a bravura scene early on, in a house where Synchronic has rendered its users useless (or bleeding to death), where the camera dances its way through the wreckage with a cheeky curiosity, weaving around the characters and setting itself up for a fittingly enigmatic conclusion.
That would be just so much razzle-dazzle if Benson and Moorhead didn’t have something sober underneath it all. In this case, along with their sincere case for friendship, that sobriety involves the end—that is to say, The End, and how even a paramedic who deals with death all the time needs to reconcile himself to that reality when it hits home. (The movie shares that theme with another recent Millennial sci-fi picture, Kate Lyn Sheil’s She Dies Tomorrow, which also had Aselton in it.) Synchronic doesn’t fit its pieces together ably enough to pull off its bigger ambitions—this is a pretty square movie when it comes down to it—but you might find yourself rooting for it anyway.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.