TIFF Review: Anthony Mackie Brings Star Power to Gloomy ‘Synchronic’

2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: If you ever wondered what a gritty cable drama about paramedics would look like, it would probably be something like “Synchronic,” directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Featuring a duo of tough guys responding to a mysterious series of gruesome deaths under dim lighting, it might cause you to wonder if “True Detective” had been remade as “True Paramedic.” Indeed, “Synchronic” captures the brooding aesthetic of recent HBO miniseries, but with an intriguing sci-fi twist that almost elevates its otherwise dreary filmmaking.

Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead and cast at the ‘Synchronic’ premiere.

“Synchronic” plunges audiences immediately into the world of its protagonists Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), a pair of paramedics on the job. Their latest duties involve a series of drug-related deaths throughout their hometown of New Orleans. Upon further investigation, they realize that these unusual cases can all be traced to a new designer drug called synchronic, which seems to cause violent hallucinations. After initially dismissing the deaths as junkie overdoses, synchronic eventually hits close to home for Dennis, whose daughter goes missing after trying the drug. Soon, Steve embarks on a mission to save her, after his own experimentation reveals otherworldly effects.

Part neo-noir, part buddy cop thriller, part cancer drama, part sci-fi adventure, “Synchronic” is an uneasy mix of film genres. Indeed, it is easily Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s most ambitious project to date. But while the complex premise promises dynamic storytelling, the writing and directing style undermine the impact of its overarching themes.

Crafting a potent atmosphere of danger through a rumbling score, dark visuals and heavy subject matter, the film maintains a consistent tone throughout. But the script lacks the psychological complexity to fully explore the characters or their relationships. Jamie Dornan becomes the biggest casualty in this regard, as he fails to leave an impression in an underdeveloped role, making it hard to care about his domestic struggles with his wife and daughter. Meanwhile, the transition from gritty noir to science fiction is disorienting.

Indeed, the storyline takes a big leap into absurdity when its hero learns that his cancer unlocks time-travelling superpowers upon taking the drug. Playing this hero, Anthony Mackie is tasked with saving the day and he almost saves the film itself. He brings a levity and charisma that isn’t far removed from his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But while those popular films embraced the fun of possessing superhero abilities, “Synchronic” unfortunately gets bogged down by its determination to remain gravely earthbound. It revels in its gothic atmosphere, grisly array of dead bodies and a bleak cancer diagnosis when it should have capitalized more on its compelling exploration of time and history.

“Synchronic” is seeking US distribution and does not have a release date.

GRADE: (★★)