For the second time in the movies this year, the city of New Orleans is reeling from the introduction of a powerful synthetic drug with supernatural sci-fi side effects.
First there was “Project Power,” in which a mysterious pill granted you a superpower for five minutes — but you wouldn’t know the nature of that superpower until you took the drug, and it might result in your violent death.
Now comes “Synchronic,” and this time around, the synthetic drug will give you a high that goes beyond heroin and even alter the space-time continuum — but there’s also a strong chance you’ll wind up on a paramedic’s gurney on the way to the hospital, or murdered at the hands of someone from another century. Talk about a trip.
Even before we learn about the dangerous and mysterious drug in “Synchronic,” something about New Orleans feels … off. The skies above the city swirl and glow in strange ways, and it always feels as if it’s 2 a.m. and there’s nobody on the streets, and bad things are happening in and around the dilapidated houses in the city’s worst neighborhoods. The camerawork adds to the feeling of disconnect and impending despair; we weave this way and that as we follow veteran EMTs and best friends Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), who find themselves responding to increasingly bizarre emergencies. They find drug overdose victims who are babbling incoherently and often suffering from grotesque injuries, sometimes with fatal results. A bite from a snake that hasn’t been seen in this region for decades. A compound fracture suffered by a victim speaking in tongues. A spontaneous combustion. A stab wound — from a centuries-old sword. The only thing the victims have in common is they’ve all ingested a lab-produced drug known as Synchronic.
Co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (“Resolution,” “V/H/S: Viral”) do a brilliant job of giving us a visceral ride through the experiences of a Synchronic trip, in which you’ll find yourself on your sofa but suddenly your sofa is in the middle of a swamp a century ago, or you wake up in the Ice Age, with a woolly mammoth trudging by in the background. Mackie’s Steve, who once dreamed of becoming a scientist (his beloved dog is named Hawking) and has a passionate interest in quantum physics and unexplained phenomena, manages to track down the last several packets of Synchronic. (The chemist who created the drug has had a crisis of conscience and is no longer making it.) When Dennis’ teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing, Steve makes it his mission to take one dangerous and potentially life-sapping Synchronic trip after another in an effort to find out where and WHEN she is and bring her home safe.
“Synchronic” is filled with big ideas played out on a relatively small canvas. It’s about best friends who envy each other’s lives and don’t appreciate what they have. Dennis found the love of his life (the always terrific Katie Aselton) and is still married to her, but he’s allowed the relationship to stagnate and he tells Steve the problem with finding the love of your life is you’ll never again have that feeling of first discovering her. Steve rightfully calls bull---- and laments being alone, especially when he finds out he’s sick. Really sick.
Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan both have been parts of blockbuster Hollywood franchises — “The Avengers” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” respectively — but they comfortably slip into this gritty, indie vehicle and deliver some of their best performances working together. Through the psychedelic journeys and the blood-spattered crime scenes and the brooding atmosphere, “Synchronic” is at heart a good old-fashioned buddy movie about two friends who will risk all for each other.