Blending science fiction, crime drama and psychedelia, Synchronic is the wildly eccentric fourth film by American filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless, Spring).
New Orleans paramedic team and best friends Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) find themselves working a series of strange jobs which involve some bizarre and extreme deaths: they find a body split apart in elevator shafts; encounter what looks like spontaneous combustion, and attempt to save the life of a man stabbed with an ancient sword. The police don’t seem to have any idea what happened, but the empty plastic Synchronic wrappers at each death site point to the involvement of a new designer drug, albeit one which seems to offer the purchaser a quite a bit more than a mind-altering high.
Away from the job, their lives are similarly complicated. Family man Dennis has troubles at home, and the arrival of their new baby puts him and his wife (Katie Aselton) under even more pressure. Adding to the tension is their inability to communicate with their rebellious teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides), who seems to prefer partying to pursuing the college life they want for her. Brianna is also more keen to chat to Steve, than her parents, which adds to Dennis’ frustration.
Meanwhile, Steve’s bachelorhood isn’t providing him with the happiness he seeks, and the grass definitely seems greener on the other side. Amongst all this, Steve learns bad news concerning the cause of his daily headaches, and shortly afterwards, Brianna goes missing at a party, leaving her parents distraught and Steve unable to share his tragic prognosis with Dennis. In search of answers trying to find Brianna, he learns she’d taken Synchronic when she disappeared, and confronting the inevitability of his own demise, makes it his dying mission to find her.
What follows is a large jump away from what seemed at first like a slow crime drama, into full-on psychedelia with a dash of foreboding, eccentric horror, and combining drug-taking, time travel and how the darkness of the past can impact the future. Steve’s discovery about Synchronic’s connection to brain chemistry, and, more specifically, his own brain, provides him with a literal launch pad of exploration which he attempts to record in his effort to find Brianna. Mixing metaphysics, sci-fi, and human drama, Synchronic is an ambitious cross-blend of genres by Benson and Moorhead.
The interesting premise – whether chemicals which affect the brain can have an effect on the physical dimension which a person is present in – is let down by huge implausibility in Benson’s script which feels underdeveloped. Mackie and Dornan as the friends whose close bond is put to the test do their best with the material, and Mackie, in particular, puts in an impressive performance, but this is weakened by the often poor dialogue they’re given. With believability being pushed too far, and the film’s direction needing a tighter pace, even the surreal visual effects and trippy weirdness aren’t quite enough to make it work.
The 63rd BFI London Film Festival runs from 2-13 October 2019. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack