Wednesday 27 January 2021

Faltered states: "Synchronic"

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are the indie writer-directors who announced themselves via a run of genre-twisting puzzle pieces: to a degree, these were something like Christopher Nolan only without the fuss or budget, and with at least a little more human interest. Their best film remains 2014's
Spring, which pursued the young-Americans-in-Europe trope into genuinely fresh and surprising territory, though some admired 2017's (to these eyes, self-conscious) cult-movie-about-a-cult The Endless. Their latest, Synchronic, has a set-up you could imagine a more illustrious studio production running with: a laddish pair of paramedics - ever-tailchasing Steve (Anthony Mackie) and listlessly settled Dennis (Jamie Dornan) - are summoned to an increasingly bizarre series of callouts linked to the titular new designer drug. Yet Moorhead and Benson develop their material laterally, and in a way that might well seem counterintuitive, forsaking cheap thrills in favour of cultivating a heavy, brooding atmosphere. Every dingy, rundown flophouse the crew relocates to gets misted up; Mackie's Steve, who just so happens to be dying from a brain tumour, is invited to quote from a letter Einstein wrote to a deceased friend's wife. This is a trip movie, then, but it's a trip movie labouring under a bad case of brainiac strain: I can understand why my Guardian colleague Peter Bradshaw lost all patience with it, and there are stretches - particularly early on and towards the end - where I think I, too, might have preferred to be watching Bradley Cooper in Limitless

One perma-niggling limitation: neither Mackie nor Dormer are quite as dynamic as they need to be - rather than "Synchro", they need speed, or a dose of whatever Nic Cage was snorting through Bringing Out the Dead - though it hardly helps the performers' cause that these medic bros appear far more interested in themselves than they are in anybody else around them. (The plot boils down to Steve solving Dennis's problem, rather than anybody addressing the casualties flooding ERs in the present-day.) What diverted me for at least some of the running time were the budget-defying setpieces, which amplify the way the drug erodes linear time and space: thus Mackie can be seen sitting on his sofa one moment, and wind up being chased through swampland by crocodiles and conquistadors the next. This second act, which is basically the Falcon tripping his balls off while zipping around the universe, is where Synchronic belatedly and briefly starts to fizz; once Steve uses this pharmacological superpower to access and start tinkering with formerly sealed-off parts of the plot, however, the exhilaration wanes, and the directors resort to overthinking once again. What they're puzzling over here - and it's a puzzle even they can't solve this time - is the correct ratio of profundity to momentum; it's how much ambition, characterisation and fragmentation a B-movie plot can bear before it buckles under the weight. As an experiment, Synchronic never takes; but I see that its chief scientists are now headed for the MCU - they're overseeing the TV spin-off Moon Knight - so perhaps the bigger puzzle of converting pulp into a viable career has been solved for them. Hey-ho.

Synchronic will be available to rent from Friday.

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