Something strange is happening in New Orleans — even by Big Easy standards, it’s some bizarro shit. Young folks have been discovered all over the city in highly unusual situations, from being bitten by rare, non-regional snakes to dismembered at the bottom of elevator shafts. Odd bits of detritus (an ancient sword, a centuries-old doorknob, a half-melted Spanish coin) are found at the scenes. “I heard French and the wind,” says one semi-coherent witness to a deadly, er, sabre-stabbing. “Time is a lie” is found scrawled on the wall of a crime scene. The police are baffled. The only connecting factor seems to be a street drug known as “synchronic,” which is new and legal and all the rage.
The more that two EMTs — the single, stay-out-all-night type Steve (Anthony Mackie) and the stolid family man Dennis (Jamie Dornan) — come across these mystery calls, the less sense any of this makes. When one of these incidents results in a missing-person case that hits close to home for this pair, however, Steve decides to dig a little deeper into what, exactly, is going on with these “fake ayahuasca” pills. He decides to pop a few. The. next thing you know, he’s running from a conquistador in some primitive swamp. Boom, he’s back in his living room. And then things get really weird.
There are some ground rules that Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Synchronic applies to the nifty, dangerous designer narcotic at the center of its dizzying storyline, and laying them out shouldn’t necessarily count as spoilers. (Should you feel that such gestures do count as spoilers, go ahead and see the movie first before venturing forth. It’s currently playing in theaters and drive-ins; with any luck, it’ll make its way to the safe alternative of streaming/VOD ASAP.) It affects the pineal gland, which apparently tends to be more malleable in teens and twentysomethings. It collapses the quaint notion of looking at things like “years,” and “centuries” and “epochs” as something chronological or linear; per the chemist (Ramiz Monsef) that created it, time is like the grooves on a record and “synchronic is the needle” you can drop anywhere on the slab of vinyl. If you’re holding on to something from the “past,” you can bring it back to the “present” with you. The geography is the same, though where you are when you take it determines what period you end up in — move four feet over, and you could find yourself in the Paleolithic era instead of a pre-Louisiana Purchase NOLA. And if you’re an African-American man like Steve, remember that once you pop those pills, you may run the risk of staring down woolly mammoths or old-timey Klan members.
That last aspect is, thankfully, never exploited; this isn’t aiming to be Antebellum redux. Nor is it ever really explored as much as you’d like it to be, which is characteristic of Synchronic as a whole, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that a lot of good material got left on the table. The movie is more into the notion of Steve and Dennis as two different versions of modern masculinity — living in a party-all-the-time state of perpetual adolescence and being unhappy; living a domesticated husband-dad existence and being slightly less unhappy — and even that feels like it’s an idea only barely surface-scratched. Benson and Moorhead aren’t prioritizing being psychoanalytic so much as psychotronic here, and if you’ve seen any of their past work (the help-I’ve-fallen-in-love-with-a-Lovecraftian-creature romance Spring, the you-can-never-go-home-again death-cult drama The Endless), you know that’s where their strength lies. They excel in generating what the kids call “a mood.” This is a premise that seems primed for using various genre elements in the service of something a little deeper, as opposed to wider. What the end result gives you instead is some singularly intriguing left turns, a chance for Mackie to remind you that he’s as much a natural leading man as he is a clutch supporting actor, and some genuinely mind-bending moments.
And what moments they are: a primitive man melting out of a foliage-filled motel wall, the sudden revelation of long-extinct beast ambling through the frame, a long “single-shot” walk through a crime scene that keeps upping the WTF ante, an image of a tiny body falling downward through a vast amount of space. These unsettling, destabilizing, arresting sequences keep things moving even when the narrative gores slack; there’s a sense that you’ve stepped into these time-traveling bad trips and can feel the ground shifting beneath your feet. It’s Synchronic‘s saving grace. “The past sucks!” Mackie’s character exclaims after coming back from one harrowing hallucinogenic excursion. Indeed — and it’s still apt to bleed into the here and now, not by any means done with us yet.