Toronto 2019 Review: SYNCHRONIC, The Science of Altered States
The Justin Benson/Aaron Moorhead oeuvre has successfully wandered in the fields of science fiction and horror, examining questions of the meaning and purpose of existence, the nature of love, and the concept of time through some serious philosophical discussions and a mystery to be solved as to why exactly some very weird shit is happening. In their fouth feature as co-directors, Synchronic, they are armed with a much larger budget and a high-profile cast, and put the mystery and action more to the centre than the philosophy; so while something of their personal touch may be harder to find, they prove they can turn their hand to a more mainstream story that still is smarter and more enjoyable than the average, thanks to their particular talents.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are old friends and EMTs working the night shift in the mainly seedier parts of New Orleans. By day, Dennis seems to constantly midly complain about his wife, teenage daughter Brianne (Allie Ioannides), and new baby, while Steve purportedly enjoys a more carefree life of one-night stands and clubbing with drinking and recreational drug use. By night, they do their job, which seems to be mostly dealing with drug overdoses.
But a series of bizarre deaths has them stymied: One guy is killed with what looks like an ancient sword; another's body is broken from what seems a fall from a enormous height; a woman in a locked hotel room is bitten by a snake that has disappeared. The only thing they have in common is a street drug, synchronic. On top of these deaths, Steve learns he has a terminal brain tumour, and Brianna has gone missing after taking this drug.
Warning: mild spoilers (impossible not to mention for any review to make sense).
At first, Steve does his part to get it off the streets by buying up as much as he can. Then, on finding it out it has some rather unusual side effects, he tries it, and discovers that synchronic transports the user through time. So instead of reflecting on his life (or lack thereof) on the eve of his death, or even telling anyone about his illness, Steve, being am amateur philosophical scientist, decides to figure out what exactly this drug does, how it made Brianna disappear, and most importantly, how he can bring her back. Where does it take the user? For how long? What are the dangers once there and upon return? And most importantly, can you get lost in the past?
In one sense, Moorhead and Benson are still using sci fi and horror tropes to tell a story; this time, though, it's wrapped up in a crime drama. This is also their first 'urban' film, once in which elements of contemporary life, such as racism and drug addiction are an intrisic part of the narrative. As such, practical matters take precedence over cerebral ones; Steve and Dennis both still have to work, their job both highly streesful and frequently mundane, as Dennis desperately tries to find his daughter through normal channels, while Steve keeps his own investigation (and impending death) to himself as long as possible. It's a smart move to centre a story such as this on a city such as New Orleans, one with a (likely somewhat stereotypical) image of a 'dangerous' city, but also one that is steeped in a more ancient folklore, that evokes images of the mystic.
As usual, each of the director's strength is played to effect. Benson has one of the best ears for realistic dialogoe of any contemporary screenwriter, able to capture the nuances of his characters in just a few sentences. Moorhead turns his cinematographic hand to showing New Orleans as a city in which, given its history both old and recent, would easily serve as a gateway between times and dimensions, where the slippage between harsh reality and even harsher past mingle.
Mackie does a great job as the centre force of the film; he's the kind of guy you would want with you if something otherworldy was going on: smart and logical enough to figure out what's going on, but not cynical enough to dismiss something just because he can't understand it. He might have some philosophical musings, but he keeps his ideas brief and to the point, knowing that, in this case, action is what matters; action after investigation.
While not as deep or strange as their previous films, Synchronic still exists within the Benson/Moorhead universe, albeit at the edge where they are likely to find new fans who they might draw in with those of us who have been exploring their territory for a while.