★★★★ out of ★★★★★
The latest offering from the collaborative team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead once again delivers a philosophical, slow burn of a movie. This film about two paramedics in New Orleans uncovering the truth of a new synthetic drug that has time travel properties is grim and heady material. Brooding and moody can be a good thing if anchored properly, and Anthony Mackie holds this film down with a fine acting performance.
Synchronic is not an easy movie to enjoy. Genre films involving drug abuse and overdoses are usually grim affairs, and this film for a good chunk of its run time is exactly that. Writer Justin Benson and cinematographer Aaron Moorhead have been directing heady, deep-thought features that often drift towards the psychedelic. Dreams and illusions. Time, and our place in the cosmos. They develop movies that have a certain stillness amongst the madness they portray. Two of their earlier features, The Endless and Spring are quietly philosophical and disturbing, also touching on the cosmic side of horror. The movie begins by engaging the mind, but by the film’s end, it will have engaged your heart.
This film follows in that tradition. Unlike other horror movie directors who will reference Romero, Carpenter, or Craven as their inspiration, Benson and Moorhead like to reference the Cohen Brothers. That gives their films a certain quirk. It also requires their actors to channel deeply into the characters, and both Anthony Mackie (The Falcon from the Marvel Universe) and Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) dig deep in their performances here.
Steve (Mackie) and Dennis (Dornan) are jaded New Orleans paramedics who have been responding to a series of bizarre incidents that each involve the victims using a drug called Synchronic. There is little common between the calls, but each of them leave behind strange artifacts and the scenes do not leave any coherent survivors to explain what has been happening.
On one of their 911 calls to a party, they discover that Dennis’s daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) had been taking Synchronic and has disappeared without a trace. This traumatic event shakes up Dennis’s marrigage, and his life begins to spiral into oblivion. It’s even worse for Steve, who comes to discover that he has a brain tumor. See? Happy stuff!
It turns out that Synchronic is a designer drug that has managed to get past the FDA, and is sold as a recreational product in the local head shops. Steve takes it upon himself to try and buy up all the local supply to get rid of the insidious narcotic because clearly, it’s having an effect on society. The pharmacist, Dr. Kermani (Ramiz Monsef), who designed the drug, has been of a similar mind. Kermani, having a crisis of conscience is also trying to reign in the demon he produced and get rid of his creation. In a confrontation with Steve, the pharmacist tells Steve that Synchronic is a drug that transports the user through time and that it gives the user more than the out-of-body experience than he expected.
Steve, recognizing that Brianna might just be stuck in time determines that he might be able to save her. He dives into his trash can to retrieve about a dozen pills he threw out and runs a series of literal time trials. He is already doomed by cancer, so what does he have to lose? He discovers that when you take Synchronic, the location of the time traveler remains the same, but the time itself will vary depending on where the user is when they take the little pill.
Steve has a limited supply of Synchronic, so he has to be judicious about his mad science experiments. Make it count! Everything has to be timed and located just right. He has to determine where she may have disappeared. WHEN she disappeared. And if it is even possible to return back with another living object. It is ominous that many of the inanimate objects that return with the traveler come back warped and distorted. The story is clever in when the time jumps occur and the consequences for Steve, a black man traveling to the past in New Orleans is a dicey proposition.
The movie makes a declaration of the wondrous nature of NOW. As much as we might want to go back in the past to change things, there are few things as good as we currently have it, and sometimes it takes some misfortune, and some really bad drugs to remind ourselves of that.
“This is delicious. This dirty, shitty river, this beer, this time, wouldn’t change it. The clock just… Keeps tickin’ down and the lower that number gets, you realize how fucking amazing now is. The present is a miracle, bruh.”Steve (Anthony Mackie)
Had Justin Benson known what was coming in 2020, he might have changed his tune, but as philosophical statements go in horror movies, that’s a pretty powerful nugget.
This is the second drugs and time travel movie that I’ve seen this year. The Wave, starring Justin Long, took the comedy/horror/sci-fi path and did a credible job on the psychedelic experience with a time distortion consequence. Synchronic is plays it straight up, and takes its time to set up the consequences, and unveils the exposition slowly. It is Moorhead and Benson’s thoughtful slow-burn psychedelic methodology played out, once again.
Visually, this also bears the hallmark of a Benson/Moorhead production. The colors are muted and desaturated. I remember thinking while watching The Endless that the film seemed to have been somewhat sun-bleached, almost like the brightness level had been turned up and the saturation down. Synchronic, on the other hand, feels gray and murky. That’s a bit odd given the trippiness of the subject material, but it also seems appropriately swampy given the bayou background. The soundtrack is similarly restrained and melancholic.
If you like this kind of mind-bending mystery, then you will very likely admire this film. For those looking for more visceral horror, look elsewhere. The only demons here reside in the tortured souls of ambulance medics who have seen too much. I will admit that it took a while for me to care for the protagonists, who seem so self-destructive, which is par for the course in any movie heavily featuring narcotics. But, when they finally dive into the time travel maguffin you find the rooting interest in saving Brianna.
Synchronic is available for rent on Amazon Prime. It is rated R for heavy drug use and some nasty crime scene aftermath sequences.