By Elias Savada.
H.G. Wells, move over. In the century-and-a-quarter since his science fiction novella popularized the notion of time travel, the theme of moving back and forth through a temporal vortex, fourth dimensional rupture, or other weird-sounding description has fascinated us. Whether long term and short visits to the past and/or future, the movies about this phenomenon have intrigued audiences for decades. Back to the Future, Looper, Arrival, several Star Trek flicks, 12 Monkeys, nearly every Terminator movie, etc.
In the Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow variant of quick jumps back, it’s been science (man-made in one, alien the other) that has centered on sending a single actor (Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Cruise) to an earlier time frame to correct a situation (a bombing, an invasion). Working on a moderate budget, but with just as much gumption, Synchronic is the latest crowd pleasing head turner from horror-science fiction filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and it offers up an intimate and slightly grisly spin on the hop backwards this sub-genre affords.
After world premiering at TIFF and screening at Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia and in the United States at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, the film awaits a distributor that will allow genre fans, or not, to watch a small gem.
This time, with a wink toward Alice in Wonderland, the path to the past is through chemistry – in the form of a rogue drug designer’s DMT-style pill the bears the film’s name. In an often dimly-lit, melancholic New Orleans, two overstressed 40ish paramedics, unsure family man Dennis Dannelly (Jamie Dornan) and active bachelor Steve Denube (Anthony Mackie), long time best buddies, tend to overdosed youngsters on their night beat. Steve suspects the tablet is causing some unusual side effects to the folks ingesting them. His hypothesis expands as bodies are stabbed, burnt, snake-bitten, or dismembered in horrifying, unnatural ways. The casual and not-so-casual pill poppers suffer hallucinogenic leaps into strange worlds not seen in many of their ancestors’ lifetimes.
While Dornan (Christian Grey in all the Fifty Shades of Grey films) plays second fiddle to Mackie – as a frantic, rumpled-hair, nail-biting father whose 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing – you do buy into the camaraderie they share, breaking away from their wearisome jobs to indulge in visits to a local strip club, family picnic outings, or just shooting the night time breeze while sharing a bottle of hard liquor or PBR.
Benson’s script layers the dialogue with clues that something is amiss, off-kilter, and downright unreal, with the visuals heightening the character-driven story with a strong exclamation point. The film benefits greatly from Mackie’s earnest grimness, perhaps because the Big Easy-born actor, a well-known member of the Marvel Comic Universe, is happy to be working on his home town turf. He carries well his tormented, human-heroic role, blending determination with realistic, humble banter (“You might see James Bond, but I experience Charlie Sheen.”), even if the script becomes a little wobbly. Steve’s struggle with bad medical news coincidentally allows him to take on a humanitarian/documentarian’s task of navigating the past as part of a personal, unexpected rescue effort. Yes, it may be far-fetched, but there’s a terrific no-holds-barred energy, embraced by the feature’s escalating production design (by Ariel Vida) and special effects (coordinated by David Nami) that drive the second half of the film, after Steve’s own drug experimenting begins.
I’ve enjoyed the filmmakers’ earlier offbeat excursions. Resolution (2012) and its follow-up The Endless (2018) in which they play brothers caught up in a UFO death cult. They enjoy putting audiences on Lovecraftian roller coasters, and they continue that in their latest film, particularly in one scene shot at an amusement park with that ride in the background.
The drifting, unsettling camerawork (by Moorhead) and sharp, occasionally jarring, editing (by Benson, Moorhead, and Michael Felker) adds to the dread that drifts through the film, as does Jimmy Lavalle’s brooding score and Yah’el Dooley’s sound design. I suspect the directors are fans of The Crow (1994) from director Alex Proyas, a ghostly tale with similar familial themes, set in a disintegrating Detroit.
The little things do count in a film like this. Maybe the odd, lenticular clouds that float through some scenes, a mastodon roaming through another, that Steve’s dog is named Hawking, or that pure white racists lay siege to the film’s hero in a tense KKK-era moment, Synchronic is a finely assembled product. Plus, I always love to see actor Bill Oberst, Jr. in any film, no matter how short the scene.
Weird Footnote: During the course of writing this review I called paramedics to take me to the hospital during a vertigo attack. It was not cinematically induced. I even had an MRI like Mackie’s character did (without the nightmarish visions). No time travel was involved and I am back home. I did get two prescriptions; neither is a designer drug.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).