'Synchronic': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Genre-twisting filmmakers stumble slightly on their path toward the mainstream.

Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan play paramedics faced with a mystery in Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's sci-fi outing.

Filmmaking partners Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have built an under-the-radar following at fests with sometimes light, sometimes heavy mind-trips that bend genre elements to their will — artful films that sometimes recall those of other genre-transcending art house filmmakers, but seem less intent on drawing attention to themselves. Making a conscious step toward the mainstream, they enlist two movie stars for Synchronic, a druggy mystery starring Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. Both actors — whose participation in moneymaking franchises has raised their profiles while barely engaging their talents — give themselves fully to their directors' vision here, playing New Orleans EMTs whose nocturnal routine is interrupted by mysterious phenomena. But the film takes a more prosaic approach to its sci-fi premise than its predecessors did, presumably in an attempt to reach viewers who need more hand-holding. Though hardly a sell-out, it seems unlikely to carry their distinctive sensibility as far forward as it might have.

Like their last outing, The Endless, this film sets off in one direction before veering into another. But while one could talk at length about The Endless before getting to its core idea, strong hints are dropped in Synchronic from early on, and there's really no story without its sci-fi conceit. Which is to say: Stop reading now if you'd like to experience the movie with its surprises intact.

Mackie and Dornan respectively play Steve and Dennis, overnight paramedics who deal with hangovers and long bouts of boredom on the job. But tonight's not a boring one: Called into a house whose inhabitants are in the thrall of strange substances, they find a man who has been skewered with an antique sword. As Dennis tends to him and Steve addresses other casualties, the camera moves restlessly through the house, weaving back and forth as if looking for one thing that will make sense of the eerie scene. Does Steve find that thing when he picks a mutilated antique coin off the floor and puts it in his pocket?

In the following days, the pair are called out to similarly bizarre death scenes, all of them involving a new designer drug, Synchronic, that hasn't yet been outlawed. We've witnessed a couple of the trips Synchronic induces — hallucinations in which the world seems to open up, being slowly overtaken by other environments — and these visions seem to have flesh-and-blood consequences for the drug's users. Meanwhile, Steve has learned that he has a brain tumor adjacent to his pineal gland. Viewers who know that gland is connected to some hallucinogens' behavior may get an idea where this is headed, but they'll hardly guess it all.

Steve will likely die in six weeks without treatment; but when Dennis' daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) vanishes mysteriously from a party after taking Sychronic, Steve decides not to tell his best friend what he's going through. Instead, he runs around buying up all the Synchronic packets in town, hoping to save those who would take it. Little does he know that he now has a house full of time-travel pills.

Leave the whys and hows, all predictably far-fetched, to the film. The rules of this temporal trip-taking are straightforward, after some moderately amusing experimentation on Steve's part, and he realizes he can use the pills to search for Brianna. Unfortunately, while FX artists make the to-and-froing through time visually appealing, the pic's compellingly weird vibe mostly dissolves at this point.

As in The Endless, viewers who have digested the premise may feel Benson and Moorhead cheat a bit near the end to extend their rescue drama, then again to tidy things up. But a bigger failure is evident after the credits, once we learn that the filmmakers intended to make time travel itself a monster, since at many points in the recent past, white male time-travelers would have a much easier time than anyone else. The movie really doesn't put that notion across, as race is only a significant risk factor in one of the story's several trips to the past. Despite its uncanny start, Synchronic is just more normal than it might have been, and less deep.

Production companies: Patriot Pictures, Rustic Films
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ioannides, Matthew Underwood, Carl Palmer
Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Screenwriter: Justin Benson
Producers: Michael Mendelsohn, David Lawson Jr., Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Executive producers: Natalie Perrotta, Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer, Aram Tertzakian
Director of photography: Aaron Moorhead
Production designer: Ariel Vida
Costume designer: Laura Cristina Ortiz
Editors: Michael Felker, Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
Composer: Jimmy LaValle
Casting director: Mark Bennett
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: UTA, XYZ Films

100 minutes