Review: Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan get dark and tortured roles in ‘Synchronic’
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The skies in “Synchronic” are never quite the right color. Bearing down on New Orleans in shades of sickly gray-green and pinkish, they seem to be in a constant state of twilight transition, portending a certain kind of doom, as if a hurricane is brewing offshore. But Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie) are in the business of doom, death and destruction. They’re the guys you don’t want to see on your doorstep: paramedics. The strange skies under which they tend to a series of increasingly bizarre injuries, deaths and disappearances only add to the surreal atmosphere.
There’s a hallucinatory quality to the calls on which they’re dispatched, a swoony score by Jimmy LaValle kicking in, the camera woozily wandering around the rooms of broken bodies and bruised brains as Dennis and Steve try to put the pieces back together. Plus, the cops keep saying weird things. Here’s an overdose in one room, a person stabbed with an ancient sword in another, a snakebite on the second floor of a hotel, a spontaneous combustion and a man in skeleton makeup cackling through a compound fracture.
None of it makes sense, but Dennis and Steve keep showing up, dutifully doing their jobs, drinking when they’re off their shifts. But then Steve starts to investigate further, picking up strange tokens, noting packets of a synthetic drug, a “fake ayahuasca” called Synchronic, at each scene. And all too soon, the Synchronic crisis hits too close to home.
“Synchronic” is the fourth feature of filmmaking team Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. The two codirect, Benson writes, and Moorhead shoots. After a trio of indie sci-fi features, with “Synchronic” they have a bigger budget and movie stars to work with, but their heady, humanist approach remains the same.
It’s clear that Benson has an interest in quantum physics and the science of supernatural phenomena (Steve has a dog named Hawking, after all). The drug Synchronic, it turns out, opens up the pineal gland, the “third eye” or what French philosopher Descartes called “the seat of the soul.” The trip flattens time, scrunching together what we typically understand to be linear, governed by a math of randomness and reason that Steve is determined to suss out.
This philosophical core, coupled with the cynical paramedic duo premise, akin to Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead,” makes for a unique, sci-fi-tinged drama with supernatural elements rooted in real-world stakes and emotion. Some of the twists and turns are belabored, and Dornan’s Dennis is saddled with a basic family storyline that isn’t as compelling as Steve’s journey. What makes “Synchronic” sing is the two together, zinging each other with sardonic one-liners, their conversations meandering to the cosmic and the macabre after a few whiskeys.
Both Dornan and Mackie, often shunted into romantic leads or blandly heroic roles, are far more interesting to watch when their tortured dark sides are allowed to come out, and “Synchronic” offers the opportunity to explore that range. Confronted with death every day, tangling with existential crises, Dennis and Steve grapple with their pasts, their futures and this moment. Although the explorations of these quandaries are undertaken during otherworldly circumstances, the film’s primary question is universal and deeply human.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for drug content and language throughout, and for some violent/bloody images
Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 23 at drive-ins and in general release where theaters are open
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