Co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead – Benson also scripts, Moorhead also photographs, they both also edit – have turned out an impressive body of early works that fuse s-f/horror with contemporary American character study, with the related Resolution and The Endless and the one-off Spring … which fuse modern-day anomie with cosmic-scale horror. They seem to have moved into a new phase of their career, taking TV gigs on the new Twilight Zone and the upcoming Moon Knight and fashioning this slightly more approachable feature (which could easily have worked as a Twilight Zone) with slightly more prominent name performers. The strangeness is still there, but the plot – save a teenage girl! – is easier to follow, and even the editorial content – being black in America has always been a dangerous occupation – is more abstract and topical than before. As a jumping-on point, it’s fine – but I’d hope folk go back and look at the earlier, odder pictures next.
In New Orleans, Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) work night shifts as paramedics, and the married, settled Dennis even cautions his single, bed-hopping pal against becoming the cliché addicted EMT (the spectre of Bringing Out the Dead hovers) – because his friend hasn’t told him that the reason he’s self-medicating is that he’s been diagnosed with a rare, fatal disease of the pineal gland. Meanwhile, a new designer drug (Synchronic) has caught on and has strange time-dislocating effects – meaning that the guys keep turning up at apparent crime scenes where Synchronic users have been stabbed with cutlasses or set on fire. There are surreal frills – the smiling dismembered guy in a liftshaft, folk phasing in and out of reality, an antique coin mangled in the timewarp – but it’s all to set up a plot hook whereby Dennis’ daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) gets lost in time, and Steve’s unique brain chemistry means Synchronic pills can send him into the past for brief spells to search for her. Only, as some throwaway chat about Michael J. Fox and Chuck Berry signals, the past is almost never a place where a random black guy can teleport without being met by murderous conquistadors, Klansmen or slavers.
All Benson and Moorhead’s films are good on male friendship – they even cast themselves as brothers in The Endless – and Mackie and Dornan run a gamut as lifelong pals who harbour a lot of resentments over their divergent lifestyles … with Steve envying Dennis wife (Katie Aselton, underused), daughter and home, while Dennis is sliding into middle-aged dissatisfaction. Steve says Dennis looks at him and sees ‘James Bond’ but from the inside his life feels more like ‘Charlie Sheen’ – giving Sheen his second shorthand-for-self-destructive-decadence namecheck this season, after The Mauretanian – and though there’s a climactic visit to (presumably) the Battle of New Orleans as featured in the song, it’s the wound in the friendship that needs healing rather than the more pitch-friendly business of rescue. In The Endless, Benson and Moorhead took two incidental characters from Resolution and gave them a whole movie, with the stars of Resolution turning up in a cameo to prove they were still locked in their own stalled relationship allegorised as a time-loop … it might profit them to come back to this and give us the story which we have to infer here about Brianna adrift in time as New Orleans begins its history of being visited over and over with disaster.