By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan and Katie Aselton
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Written by Justin Benson
SYNCHRONIC opens with its paramedic protagonist Steve (Anthony Mackie) quoting Albert Einstein: “The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Heady stuff, and that’s to be expected from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who have spent the 2010s exploring the cerebral side of horror and science fiction in films like RESOLUTION, SPRING and THE ENDLESS. SYNCHRONIC, which began its fest tour at the Toronto International Film Festival and next hits Fantastic Fest and Sitges, is a nudge into the mainstream for the duo, with a more linear, explicated plot that nonetheless dabbles in some big themes.
Steve and his partner Dennis (Jamie Dornan) wage a nightly struggle to temporarily preserve lives as their ambulance races to the hospital, while dealing with life issues of their own. Outside his job, Steve is unmoored, drinking and sleeping around too much, while Dennis has a fractured relationship with his wife Tara (Katie Aselton). Their dramas play out in a New Orleans largely devoid of the kind of local color one usually finds in movies taking place in the Big Easy. It is instead a gloomy, mystical environment in which the duo begin getting called to especially peculiar trauma scenes, and an impressive early single-take shot draws us right into the first situation: a squalid house with a dead body on the floor, the victim of an unidentifiable weapon. Then they arrive on the scene of a woman who has evidently been bitten by a rattlesnake—in her hotel room. Though Steve and Dennis are perplexed, Benson and Moorhead reveal to the audience that this is not a case of someone’s errant reptilian pet, but something much odder and more ominous, and it’s tied to a new designer street drug called Synchronic.
This substance’s particular effect on its users steers the movie from down-and-gritty procedural territory into the realm of the hallucinatory that Benson and Moorhead have always excelled at. Working on their highest budget yet, they conjure some eye-popping setpieces while assuring the story overall remains moored in the recognizably everyday. Nonetheless, SYNCRONIC feels a little less personal and is more plot-driven than their previous work, particularly once the circumstances of the case hit home for Dennis, and Steve sets out to make things right, which involves taking Synchronic himself. Steve’s devotion to helping his friend gives the story a dramatic engine, even if he’s a little too tidily suited to this particular quest: He harbors a passion for physics (he’s named his dog “Hawking”), and he’s got a tumor on his pineal gland that renders him uniquely receptive to Synchronic’s effects—which also imposes a ticking clock on his life that compels him to use what’s left of it on this personal mission.
There’s more humor, too, in SYNCHRONIC than the filmmakers have employed before, a good deal of it deriving from Steve’s reactions as he goes on trial runs of the pills. Mackie, emerging from the MCU ensemble to take a welcome lead, persuasively conveys Steve’s newfound resolve as he willingly puts himself in danger for a greater good. The “voyages” he takes under their influence sometimes land him in situations where, as an African-American, his race makes him a target of hostility, which seems to be setting up a larger commentary that doesn’t get followed through on. SYNCHRONIC is more successful as a meditation on human connection, familial and otherwise, within the framework of a mystery-thriller based on a sci-fi premise that, as Benson and Moorhead present it, feels just a couple of steps removed from reality. With their usual sterling craft (Moorhead’s cinematography and Jimmy LaValle’s score help sustain the eerie, uncertain mood), the two filmmakers once again demonstrate that they’re genre auteurs with complex concerns, and even if SYNCHRONIC falls short of some of those ambitions, it contains more than enough to engage the eye and the mind.