Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead — the directing team behind Resolution, Spring, and The Endless — aren’t short of ideas or talent behind the camera; their particular brand of low-budget, high-concept genre work is often refreshingly novel. What they’ve lacked on occasion is the right actors to sell their vision, a problem especially noticeable in 2017’s The Endless, in which the two directors unconvincingly took on the film’s leading roles. Their latest, Synchronic, is more of the same ruminative science fiction they’ve become known for, but represents a step up primarily due to the good fortune of landing a pair of (relatively) big-time actors to anchor the film.
Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan play a pair of New Orleans-based EMTs, losing sleep and providing aid in a sub-Bringing Out the Dead sort of life. Dornan’s Dennis is a family man, with a wife and kids to go home to; Mackie’s Steve is a perpetual bachelor, more comfortable with his dog and his friend than any romantic companion. Their nightly treks around the city grow increasingly more horrifying as a new designer drug hits the streets and bodies start piling up — but being a Benson and Moorhead joint, there’s more to this than meets the eye. Turns out Synchronic is a time travel movie, with the titular drug allowing for a sort of time slippage to a variety of historical periods, depending on one’s location and biochemical makeup.
Time travel stories can be a mixed bag — they’re done often enough that an innovative hook is necessary but not always present. Benson and Moorhead layer on plenty of mystery and some gnarly body horror elements, but the real draw of the narrative is a confrontation with the idea that, for many Americans, a trip to the past is less Back to the Future and more Russian Roulette. This is where Mackie — thankfully — gets to shine. As with many actors, it’s somewhat disappointing that Mackie has been so tied up with Marvel projects over the last decade; his baseline is nothing less than eminently watchable and at his best (e.g. The Hurt Locker) he’s as impressive as any of his contemporaries. Here, he gets another opportunity to take center stage and ends up carrying almost all of the film’s emotional and thematic weight.
Outside of Mackie, the character work here is merely passable. Though the two leads have good chemistry, Dornan's subplot is weaker, tending towards wheel-spinning, and honestly the whole endeavor feels a little undercooked. But you can’t deny that Benson and Moorhead are swinging for the fences here, using their biggest spotlight yet to prove they can work within (or at least, close to) the mainstream without losing their integrity. The result may still be a little rough around the edges, but it’s hard not to appreciate the attempt.