Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead work in a grand old tradition of smart people making genre movies for too little money: Val Lewton with his RKO chillers of the 1940s, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in the 1960s, Larry Cohen’s gonzo B-movies in the 1980s. Benson and Moorhead — the former writes the scripts, the latter handles the camerawork, both direct — have an interestingly dry obsession with time, and their latest movie, “Synchronic,” while being one of their more traditional outings, still opens itself up to some splendid drive-in philosophizing.
The plot is anchored by a pair of EMTs working the graveyard shift in New Orleans, longtime friends Steve (Anthony Mackie, always welcome) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan, Christian in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies). Steve’s a ladies’ man, while Dennis is married, with a sulky 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), and a newborn with wife, Tara (Katie Aselton). The heroes’ home lives factor in with a more friendly eccentricity than is usual for this kind of thing.
A designer drug called Synchronic has hit the streets, and it’s causing violently bizarre overdoses; when Brianna disappears after taking a hit with friends, Steve swings into not action, per se, but experimentation. Acquiring a cache of the drug, he starts dosing himself steadily and with video documentation to put the puzzle pieces together.
This being Benson and Moorhead, it gives only a little away to say that time travel is involved. Still, it’s the duo’s wonky, systematic approach to the gimmick that makes “Synchronic” so much fun. Steve discovers there are rules of where — or rather, when — the drug will take you when it kicks in, and, trust me, there are certain periods of Louisiana history into which a Black man probably shouldn’t teleport from the future.
A curious aspect of the movie is that Synchronic only takes its users into the past — I’d love to see Benson and Moorhead’s idea of the future — and at least one character, a frazzled scientist-type, turns up solely so we can get a scientist-type explanation of what’s going on (it involves pineal glands) before he disappears as conveniently as he arrived. Narrative structure isn’t always the filmmakers' strong suit.
What is their strong suit is a droll interest in chaos theory as it affects average B-movie schmoes just trying to live their lives; Mackie is immensely sympathetic as a man with the equivalent of a gun to his pineal gland. And it wouldn’t be a Benson-Moorhead movie without the characters pulling back into testy exchanges about the Meaning Of It All or, in this case, the preciousness of any given moment in time — if you’re able to slow down and savor it.
Note: “Synchronic” is playing at Boston and suburban theaters; it’s also available on most video-on-demand platforms. The filmmakers recently took to Instagram to urge viewers to avoid enclosed venues and state that “we personally wouldn’t go to an indoor movie theater, so we can’t encourage you to.”
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Written by Benson. Starring Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton. At Boston theaters and suburbs and available on demand. 96 minutes. R (drug content and language throughout, some violent/bloody images)