Dog-lovers beware: Synchronic (2019)

Synchronic_UK_Digital_BannerSynchronic has an enticing pedigree, coming from the team behind The Endless and Spring, two of the most interesting genre films of the last few years. For the first half-hour its really pretty great, rather like a weird, winning combination of Videodrome and Angel Heart (two of my favourite movies), but unfortunately it gradually self-destructs in bewildering fashion: the ending is supposed to be some kind of climactic, emotional resolution but its more of a whimper, the narrative running out of steam and floundering, never reaching the catharsis it deserves. Is this a case where giving film-makers a bigger budget actually works against them?

Two New Orleans paramedics, Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) on a series of night shifts are called out to unusual deaths that are related to a new designer drug, named Synchronic, which alters the users perception of time, and appears to enable travel into the past. In some ways it feels a lot like a Philip K Dick-kind of story, a strange tale about altered perception of reality and reality changing around the central protagonist- in Videodrome, it was the signal creating tumours in the viewers brains that altered their reality, while in Synchronic, its the drug altering the users brains breaking them from the usual forward flow of Time. Its a fascinating premise that initially isn’t as silly as it might sound, and there is an ingenious twist that a person’s position in three-dimensional space dictates where in time the drug will send them, Spacetime like a hologram: as the scientist who developed the drug states, Time is the tracks/grooves etched into a vinyl album, any moment existing in perpetuity and instantly ready to be played, and the drug Synchronic is the needle that drops on any position (the analogy was described better in the movie, mind). 

The film has a certain visual flourish in its first sequences that display what people taking the drug actually experience, with an unsettling music score that reminded me of those of Altered States and Annihilation; its all quite arresting and exciting and seems full of all sorts of possibilities. Unfortunately the script struggles to take it anywhere meaningful and for some reason, in editing, some scenes seem to have been placed out of order, a stylistic choice that is perhaps intended to unsettle the viewer or perhaps prefigure the films suggestion that Time is not linear. Adding to this confusion is the sound mix losing some of the dialogue, letting it get buried in the mix, a sin I find particularly annoying. 

It isn’t helped by Anthony Mackie, who I really struggle to take to in most any film he appears in- he just sees to be the same guy in every film and here he seems terribly miscast : he just can’t convince as a loner with an addictive personality who womanises and drinks too much and cannot find peace, and is then diagnosed as terminally ill with a brain  tumour. He looks like he’s walked straight offset from a Marvel movie (which he probably did). Part of the conviction of movies of old was from their casting: you can buy James Woods as Max Renn in Videodrome, as he’s patently dangerous and on the edge, and there is always something ‘wrong’ about Mickey Rourke’s Harry Angel in Angel Heart, but films these days just like its actors/characters to be some kind of ideal or ‘perfect’. Movies just don’t do flawed characters well anymore, certainly nobody overweight or with a bad complexion or not fresh out of the gym.

So that’s the root issue with Synchronic, well before the film starts to unravel into a plotline involving going back in time to rescue Dennis’ daughter who has become lost in the past (no, really, that where this damn thing goes). I just never ‘buy’ into Mackie. To be fair, parts of the script do him no favours; how any guy can risk taking his dog into the past and then not fall to pieces when said dog gets left behind, well I call bullshit on that right there (non-dog-owners mileage may vary). Any dog owner would never risk that and would be in pieces afterwards when the pet was lost; Steve hardly bats an eyelid. This ill-thought writing can be seen elsewhere: it turns out Dennis’ marriage is on the rocks, presumably this is intended to add tension/drama but it comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, there is a sub-plot involving the scientist who created the drug, but that again comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere (and the scientist dies, apparently, offscreen). Most crushingly of all, Dennis’ daughter Brianna is ill-served by the plot, we don’t really ‘know’ her, she takes the drug offscreen and disappears offscreen and frankly, who cares about her at all (and her connection to Mackie’s character seems perfunctory at best)?

So watching this, I had the feeling I was watching a solid 8/10 movie for awhile but could sense the score slipping as it went on. If I did score films I review, it possibly fell back to a 5/10 that becomes a 6/10 because of just how good the beginning and its mood and execution early on was. Such a shame, really; its so rare that I watch something that compares favourably to films like Videodrome and Angel Heart, and this film could have, perhaps should have, been a classic. 

Some connections:

Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also made the much better Resolution, The Endless and Spring.

Anthony Mackie similarly failed to impress in Outside the Wire and The Woman in the Window.

As far as better movies with a similarly atmospheric New Orleans vibe go, obviously there’s Angel Heart.

4 thoughts on “Dog-lovers beware: Synchronic (2019)

  1. Tom

    I totally forgot about this one. I was intrigued by the pairing of Mackie and Dornan, especially for the latter — trying, a la Robert Pattinson to escape the shadow of a rather embarrassing career plunge (and if only 50 Shades of F**k-off was actually more believably f**k-centric, he wouldn’t have to be so ashamed of it!). I like Anthony Mackie more than you it seems but that’s fine, he doesn’t seem to budge much from his Marvel personality but I think he’s got more range than Chris Pratt for sure.

    I’ll have to track this down, I’ll take a movie that starts well and ends poorly than one that goes vice versa. Which might also be an interesting poll/post for my site sooner or later. Hmm.

  2. Matthew McKinnon

    Yeah, much the same here. I waited an eternity to see this: I first heard of it when it popped up at the LFF in 2019, and then Covid scuppered distribution for 18 months, and I ended up importing a Blu-ray from the US. Mild disappointment ensued.

    I echo pretty much all your points. The opening is great, but it just feels like the budget was too high to force writing ingenuity, but too low to allow anything genuinely spectacular.

    And I have the same problem with Mackie: he just comes off as a slightly snarky guy in a bad mood all the time, in everything I’ve seen him in. I can’t recall him showing a single emotion, ever, beyond annoyance. His agent must have super-powers.

    1. Mackie is terrible but like a few popular actors he seems to keep on getting hired- to be brutally honest, its pretty clear that with Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ etc making huge demands for product, some ‘talent’ are making an absolute mint out of the sheer desperation of streaming services as well as traditional networks/channels. Quality control is obviously secondary.

      As I watched Synchronic I just kept on thinking that I should have been watching Videodrome instead…

  3. Pingback: The 2021 List: July – the ghost of 82

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