Synchronic review: Anthony Mackie trips lightly through the Benson-Moorhead time fantastic

Time travel is the hardest drug for buddy medics Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan in this high-concept if under-polished pop mystery from indie sci-fi darlings Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.

Synchronic premieres in the UK on 6 October 2019 at the BFI London Film Festival

Beatrice Loayza
Updated:

Jamie Dornan as Dennis and Anthony Mackie as Steve in Synchronic

Jamie Dornan as Dennis and Anthony Mackie as Steve in Synchronic

With their fourth film, filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead inch towards the mainstream without losing sight of their genre-bending roots. Synchronic is an atmospheric crime drama that shifts gears halfway through into a psychedelic adventure story. Fuelled by a bigger budget, their latest outrageously high-concept science-fiction feature is part Bringing Out the Dead, part Shane Carruth’s Primer, but with a bro-lationship at its heart and and intriguing (if watered down) commentary on American race relations.

Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan star as New Orleans emergency medical technicians and best friends Steve and Dennis. Lately they’ve witnessed a number of freak accidents during their nightly shifts (exotic snake bites, bodies crushed in elevator shafts or seemingly burned at the stake), all mysteriously linked to a new designer drug called synchronic, sold at local head shops.

It doesn’t take long for the impact of this trendy new drug to hit home and, perhaps a bit too predictably, Dennis’s cool teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing after dabbling. A search ensues that puts a strain on Dennis’s marriage, while lifelong bachelor Steve finds out he’s got weeks to live after being diagnosed with a severe brain tumour. Confronting the inevitability of his death makes Steve more reckless than usual, which turns out to be a good quality for a hero as he obsesses over Brianna’s disappearance and the drug’s fickle effects.

The abbreviated explanation is that the drug works like a time-travel pill, briefly transporting its users to a time in the past determined by their point of ingestion; the specifics are explained as Steve launches a series of experiments shown as recorded footage from his camcorder. From different spots in his living room he’s whisked to the swamp lands of 18th century conquistadors, the ice age and Ku Klux Klan territory.

The film asserts an anti-romantic conception of history – that the past, absent our civilisational advances and modern tools of comfort, was horrific, doubly so for a black man in the American South. But Benson and Moorhead don’t lend this take any nuance, preferring to run with the tension of a running clock, and a gung-ho hero who lacks a moment’s rest for self-reflection. Rather, the film leans into the experiential shock-factor of time travel as a metaphor for the protective blinders we put on historical memory – a construct distinctly afforded by the sci-fi film. Victims of synchronic aren’t high exactly, we learn by Dennis’s sober actions under its effects; rather so stupefied by their new realities they’re too immobilised to get out of harm’s way. Short, bad trips – the synchronic high only lasts seven minutes – generate traumatic confrontations with history, bursts of terrifying, overwhelming unfamiliarity that the brain is incapable of fully processing.

Kitschy, occasionally maudlin dramatic beats and Mackie’s incredulous, tension-alleviating sense of humour prevent Synchronic from getting too bleak or too serious; and while these choices prevent the film from registering as entirely profound, they are also part of the transportive fun, mostly complementing the trippy unbelievability of the whole thing. Synchronic has plenty of loose bolts – particularly in its under-developed script – but dazzlingly surreal visual effects and Jimmy LaValle’s lugubrious techno score will keep audiences gleefully immersed in Benson and Moorhead’s wacky, propulsive world.

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