Anthony Mackie has been a serviceable supporting man for a long time, whether against Eminem—excuse me, Marshall Mathers—in 8 Mile or Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson or Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker or, of course, Chris Evans’s Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s slowly beginning to change (he’ll replace Joel Kinnaman as lead in the second season of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, and yes, he’ll be taking over the shield for Evans in the next phase of the MCU), and Mackie does a solid job stepping into the lead role of Synchronic, the latest time-travel sci-fi film from creative partners Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
The horror genre is where Benson and Moorhead live (the creature feature of 2014’s Spring, the cult strangeness of 2017’s The Endless), but Synchronic dials back some of the spookiness for a more straightforward time-travel film. Set in present-day New Orleans, the film follows paramedics and close friends Steve (Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan, thankfully working a different American accent than the very bland one he used in the 50 Shades franchise), who ditched medical school and are now stuck in a very routine sort of life.
They work the night shift. They wait for calls. They hit golf balls in deserted lots and shoot the shit until they’re needed. And for the most part, they get along—even though Steve is increasingly lonely, bored by his endless array of one-night stands, and Dennis feels unfulfilled in his marriage, even though wife Tara (Katie Aselton) is expecting their second child. With their older daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), rebelling against them by refusing to think about college, and with the added stress of a new addition to their family, Dennis is increasingly irritable.
That personal drama is briefly set aside, though, when Dennis and Steve notice a pattern in their work. First there’s the overdose they respond to, where a young woman stabbed a guy in the chest with a jagged, metallic sword. Where the hell did that come from? Then there’s the burn victim in the middle of what looks like an abandoned carnival, charred to a crisp, with what looks like a gilded doorknob next to the body. And in a hotel, two bodies: A man who plummeted to his death down the elevator shaft, and a woman, bitten by a snake—a kind of snake that doesn’t live in New Orleans.
The deaths don’t make much sense, but no one really cares. These are junkies, after all, so do their lives hold value? But Steve thinks they do, and when he realizes that all of these people were using the synthetic drug Synchronic, he decides to investigate what’s going on. Oh, and did I mention that he’s so committed to figuring this all out because he has a brain tumor that might kill him? Yeah! He has a brain tumor that might kill him! So why not spend his last days unraveling this mystery and potentially saving people’s lives?
Steve’s dedication to tracking down the source of the drug, and then realizing the time-travel capabilities it inexplicably holds, are the most exciting parts of Synchronic, as we follow Mackie’s character through various time periods during his experimentation. Those scenes take us out of the griminess of present-day New Orleans to various historical periods that are more interesting visually, more light-infused and verdant, like when the country was more swampy and waterlogged. It’s a nice contrast to the monotonously dark tones of how Benson and Moorhead present the inside of Steve and Dennis’s ambulance, the bland suburbia of Steve’s home, and the city neighborhoods. (Honestly, I was surprised to learn that the movie actually filmed in New Orleans; the movie’s presentation of the city is so flavorless.)
The flip side of all that time travel, though, is how often the movie relies on people of different ethnicities and cultures to stand in as boogeyman villains: Native Americans and Haitians, in particular, are presented as less confused by the modern interloper in their midst than instantly nefarious and violent. And it’s unsurprising that there are lengthy scenes in which Steve must face off against murderous KKK members and Southerners; the film never takes the risk of giving Steve an ally, or having him interact with any women in the past. Or any women at all, if he’s not sleeping with them! Synchronic whiffs hard on really developing any female characters, although one of the plot’s motivating moments is the disappearance of a young woman.
But Mackie is a steady force, no matter how the narrative pushes and pulls him, and he brings a no-nonsense logic to deciphering the qualities of Synchronic that keeps the film grounded. Dennis’s character is more reactive here—and as a result, Dornan has less to do—but you can buy that these two would be friends who have grown apart over time, with only the tedium of their job, strip-club visits, and family barbecues to sustain their bond. Synchronic is too imbalanced to be a new genre classic, in need of more reflection from its characters and more risk-taking with its sci-fi elements, but at least it gives viewers a greater idea of what Mackie as a leading man can do.
This review originally ran out of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where Synchronic was a special presentation film. Synchronic is now available on digital.
Header Image Source: TIFF