Among the best compliments that can be paid to the filmmaking team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead is to say that their films are more interesting when you know absolutely nothing about them. Leading with that statement raises the valid question of why anyone would want to read this review. Maybe you shouldn’t; maybe you should just see their latest feature, “Synchronic.”
This tale of enhanced perception, relativity, time, luck and fate is far from perfect. It takes a bit too long setting up its premise. It doesn’t delve as deeply into the psyches of its two appealing lead characters (a couple of New Orleans paramedics played by Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan investigating a string of ghastly, drug-related deaths) as it keeps promising to. And its climactic act of heroism doesn’t quite feel as grand as it should, because the relevant character’s backstory has been explained to us without letting us really feel it, from the inside out.
But it’s still much more thought provoking than most of the films and TV series that call themselves science fiction. It puts thought into the science of its premise, and reveals how things work via the scientific method (literally; Mackie’s former physics student-turned-paramedic does the same thing over and over again on purpose, with minor variations, taking notes as he goes). It never resorts to having characters explain how stuff works when it can visualize the process by having people perform actions. And while it offers some gripping and/or darkly beautiful images, it’s ultimately more about ideas than spectacle, proving (like every previous film by this team) that you don’t need a gigantic amount of money to create an engrossing work of science fiction and/or fantasy.
I’m being deliberately vague here, because I enjoyed having no idea where “Synchronic” was going, what motivated the two main characters, whether it would turn out be an action film, a horror film or some kind of metaphysical mystery (it’s a bit of all three), even what the title meant (turns out it’s an allusion to both drug slang and an aspect of one theory of time). Those who would prefer to experience the movie cold should duck out at the end of this paragraph and return later.
Benson and Moorhead’s prior films (including “Spring” and “The Endless“) were distinguished by how they somehow balanced two types of genre films that tend to draw different kinds of audiences: the kind where you are allowed to understand what’s happening and the kind that leaves a certain amount of negative space in the premise that you have to fill in on your own. “Synchronic” is another tightrope walk. After establishing the properties of the title substance—a mind-altering designer drug in pill form that’s sold in single dose packets that look like condoms from a distance—it lets Mackie’s bitter, intellectual, self-negating main character, Steve, figure out what it does. By the two-thirds mark in the story, we have a pretty good idea of the gist of things: take a single pill, a la Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and you can enter a different time period while staying in more or less the same space, and you get to stay there for seven minutes.
The scene where the creator of the drug explains time as a series of concentric, parallel tracks rather than a single straight line should be shown in poetry as well as physics classes; apart from preparing us for the experiments that Steve is about to start performing, it’s just a lovely image that’s hopeful in a movie otherwise ruled by fear and dread. Ingeniously evoking Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “Slaughterhouse Five” (which Benson and Moorhead are uniquely suited to adapt), “Synchronic” turns into the story of man who chooses to become unstuck in time, partly because he needs to locate Dennis’ daughter (Ally Ioannides’ Brianna), who ingested the drug during a party and disappeared; but mainly because his tragic past, tied into Hurricane Katrina, has transformed him into an emotionally closed-off, drug-abusing, hard-drinking womanizer—a bit like the war veterans that often become detectives or gangster in film noir and crime fiction.
But to its credit, the script doesn’t lean on that particular cliche, instead suggesting that Steve’s lived experience as Black man in America—the former Confederate south specifically—is a big part of why he’s a burnout case who resents his partner’s married-with-kids domesticity and feels like he’s just marking time on earth. The movie is always right on the edge of being scathingly political and anti-racist, but stops just short; but the present-day references to Steve being unwelcome in certain city neighborhoods, and the presence of so many bigoted whites in the time-travel set-pieces—including hooded Klansmen and a Confederate infantryman who thinks Steve is his slave—confirms that we’re not reading too much into this aspect.
All that having been said, “Synchronic” is more comfortable exploring a generalized sort of alienation, linked to feeling as though life is never going to get any better after enduring a horrendous personal trauma (Steve’s problem, dating back to Katrina), or that the best has already happened and it’s all downhill from here on out (Dennis’ eventual viewpoint, after he loses his daughter and his marriage crumbles).
There’s also a nearly poetic fascination with the experience of, and description of, what it feels like to move through time linearly, and how that ties into the grief of losing a loved one, an opportunity, or a period of one’s life, or the life of one’s city or country. Are the dead-and-gone truly lost, taken away, decomposed, disappeared? Or have they jumped to a different track on the record album? Can we find them? Can they see us? Can we feel them even when they aren’t there?
Steve’s word-for-word quotation from a letter by Albert Einstein (who unpacked ideas of relativity without which this movie would not exist) is the first scene that makes Steve seem like something more than a passive audience surrogate to whom things happen. Einstein’s letter to the surviving family of his friend and sometime work partner Michele Besso describes Besso as having “preceded me a little in parting from this strange world.” The mournful, resigned expression on Mackie’s face (a superb performance all-around) gives the character a bitter edge and an intellectual gravity that only deepens as the rest of the story unfolds. He is a man who has lifted the veil that shrouds all others’ vision, and glimpsed the vastness of the cosmos.