A slick if slight thriller, Synchronic earns points for originality with its pill-based time-traveling plot and for a strong central performance from Anthony Mackie, who brings us along as he investigates how the pills work and what he can do to save the loved ones who’ve ingested them. Written by Justin Benson and co-directed by Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Synchronic mostly works as a character-driven drama about Steve (Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), long-time best friends and partners as paramedics on a New Orleans ambulance who respond to a rash of gruesome incidents all apparently related to a new street drug found at the each scene. That the script gets a bit bogged down in explainers meant to be meaningful moments between characters and loses track of some of its own emotional stakes along the way is forgiven, if only slightly, by the sheer confidence it takes to produce an original sci-fi thriller to this degree featuring two strong marquee actors in its lead roles.
After a creepy—and slightly disorienting—prologue that clues us into the brutal effects of this synthetic new drug, Steve and Dennis find their way to the scene in a hotel room where a woman has an inexplicable snake bite on her leg and her companion lays bleeding to death with a stab wound through his torso. Steve and Dennis get to work trying to care for the couple, and for the moment it just seems like an inexplicably odd call, the kind that come in now and then in the Big Easy. But the odd calls keep adding up, including the corpse of a woman who, according to the police at the scene, must’ve spontaneously combusted. It’s not the kind of incident the paramedics are accustomed to responding to, and the two try to blow off steam grabbing a drink and their favorite strip club or at an outdoor barbecue with their families. Steve is close to Dennis’s family, including teenage daughter Tara (Katie Aselton), who becomes the victim in the inexplicable occurrences when she disappears without a trace.
Steve realizes that the drug at each of the accident sites must be involved, and feeling out of options to get to the bottom of whatever’s going on, he decides to acquire as much of it as he can and do his own investigating. At home and a bit tipsy, he starts dosing enough to transport him out of his living room and into some other dimension of time and space; over the series of a few trips (literal and figurative), he establishes a few ground rules for the substance that he hopes can help him find Tara and bring her back with him. Credit goes to Benson who likely spent no small amount of time building out the world of Synchronic, establishing the boundaries for what does and doesn’t happen with the drug and figuring out ways to help the audience understand it, even if some of them are a bit heavy-handed (the brief introduction of the scientist who created the drug is a thread that disappears much like those who take the drug and evaporate into thin air).
Whatever degree an audience buys the film’s sci-fi premise is thanks to Mackie’s commitment to the reality of the film; Steve is all-in on figuring this thing out, and Mackie balances the tough-guy persona of a man who won’t be defeated by the dark and dangerous in his life (there’s a whole sub-plot he’s navigating that borders on the silly side) with the emotionally draining work of putting himself through the wringer to get to the bottom of it. By the time he understands what he has to do to make things right for Dennis and Tara, Mackie has completely sold Steve as a man who would make such a sacrifice and do so willingly. It’s a welcome lead performance from an actor who’s had supporting roles in some of the biggest films in recent years (including a turn in the Marvel Universe). Mackie’s performance may be enough to make Synchronic worth a look; the filmmakers’ bold originality—uneven as it may be—ultimately tips the scales for this one.
Synchronic is now playing at Music Box Theatre. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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