Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are two New Orleans ambulance paramedics and close friends. Dennis, a father of two, envies Steve’s bachelor life and one-night stands. Steve envies Dennis’ settled home life (and his underused wife played by Kate Aselton), despite Dennis’ late-night complaints of feeling trapped.
Their late-night shifts, usually filled with victims of violence, overdoses and drugs dens, soon turn gruesome. The camera weaves through run down homes, following the paramedics through dank sets, filled with drug paraphernalia and lifeless bodies. Victims start popping up across the city with unusual wounds that include being attacked by a rare snake and being injured by a Japanese sword. The only thread that connects these new cases is a recreational designer drug called Synchronic.
The pair seem unbothered by these unusual deaths, too concerned with their own personal issues. Steve gets diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour, which affects his pineal gland. Dennis’ teenage daughter, Brianna (a moody Ally Ioannides) disappears, last seen at a party taking Synchronic. This version of New Orleans is so bleak and dark, it’s almost dystopian. What starts as a black comedy about paramedics soon turns into a mind-bending sci-fi filled with missed opportunities.
Steve soon turns to Synchronic, wondering if taking this drug can lead to clues to Brianna’s whereabouts. He soon realises that the designer pill thrusts users into the often-perilous past. Any injuries sustained on the journey are permanent, even fatal.
In the latter part of Synchronic, Dennis is side-lined as Steve starts to experiment with the drug and its effects. Setting up camera equipment for research purposes, Steve visits the ice age, meets a Spanish conquistador and hides in the trenches. He is usually reminded that being a Black man in a strange white land is a dangerous thing. These visits are too brief to explore any themes, let alone sensitive topics like racism.
Jamie Dornan shows a depth he is often denied while Anthony Mackie is a formidable screen presence. Mackie brings a complexity to Steve than many actors wouldn’t when dealing with such layered sci fi storytelling. After learning of his illness, he expertly depicts a range of sadness and self-loathing. Under all the high concepts and altered states, Synchronic is a film about a terminally ill man trying to appreciate the present by travelling to the past.
Moorhead’s cinematography makes good use of New Orleans as a location. The city already has a sense of decay to it, the film only emphasises the loneliness of the place at night. The visual effects of the Synchronic side effects are original, well placed and relatively well done for such a low-budget production. When the film switches to the trippy, you almost mourn the dark comic thriller that is originally presented to us as a narrative red herring.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have been making high concept films together since 2012’s Resolution. Since 2017’s The Endless, the pair put themselves on the map as two of the most ingenious filmmakers out there. The concept of a time travel pill has a lot of mileage but is wasted on these thinly written characters. The directors make New Orleans look beautifully dark and seedy but can’t quite juggle the big concepts of the last act.
Ultimately Synchronic buckles under the weight of such a high concept. The balance between the darkly funny crime thriller and the trippy sci-fi is misjudged but held up by a charming performance by Anthony Mackie. While the concept is great, the film doesn’t give it enough time to develop, giving us a lacklustre ending that lacks emotion depth.
Synchronic is released on VOD on January 29th
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy