Directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead. Screenplay by Benson.
Starring Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ioannides, & Devyn A. Tyler.
Patriot Pictures / Love & Death Productions / Pfaff & Pfaff Productions
Rated R / 102 minutes
Drama / Horror / Sci-Fi
★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS! All hope abandon ye who enter here.
I’ve been a huge fan of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead since seeing their film Resolution. They continued to wow with their work in V/H/S: Viral, a short called “Bonestorm” that pitted skaters crossing the border into Tijuana with cultists and reanimated corpses. Spring and The Endless each stunned me respectively, the latter continuing elements of Resolution and twisting the two films together in genius ways. Needless to say I was excited for Synchronic. The film’s unique and exciting, offering a story so unlike anything else I’ve seen over the past few years. That being said, I have serious reservations about where the plot goes in the end, and they all but ruin the film entirely for me.
Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie) are paramedics working in New Orleans. They start to see strange things on the streets while doing their best to save patients, namely the wild effects of a new designer drug called Synchronic. When Steve gets life-altering news, and Dennis’s daughter goes missing, he decides to give Synchronic a try himself. What occurs after Steve ingests the drug is a journey that takes him across time and space in the name of saving his friend’s daughter, and perhaps discovering a greater purpose in life.
The aims of Synchronic are high, merging horror and sci-fi into a piece of existentialism that questions the nature of time and history, as well as explores the strong bond between two men who care for one another deeply. The film gets itself wrapped up in issues of race that, unfortunately, it cannot untangle, beginning the film with an early scene that seems poised to examine being Black in America, and ending with a Black man sacrificing himself for the good of a white family. Benson and Moorhead are great storytellers. This film, however, lacks the expert storytelling present in their other work, and its better themes get lost in poor choices that confuse these two brilliant filmmakers’ intentions.
Before diving into what troubled me, I’ll look at what I loved.
The title itself does work on its own as the plot unfolds. The word synchronic is a shortened version of synchronicity, bringing Carl Jung into the picture. For Jung, synchronicity involves events as meaningful coincidences if they occur with no actual casual relationship yet seem meaningfully related. Jung used his theory to argue in favour of the paranormal, and the term has since been used in a variety of fields. Synchronic takes Jung’s idea and expands it existentially with the use of time travel. Benson and Moorhead capture the synchronicity of history well in several sequences, though the opening may be the best of them, showing how the eponymous designer drug collapses space and time differently for each individual and from one location to the next.
My favourite aspect of Synchronic is how Benson’s screenplay depicts a positive male friendship free of the usual toxic hangups we see in most pop culture. Dennis and Steve are close friends who evidently will do anything for one another, especially shown in the finale. It’s refreshing to see a guy like Dennis trying to positively influence Steve, hoping his friend will give up a life of drinking and sleeping around to settle into domesticity, or at least a less taxing lifestyle. Drinking and sleeping around is fine up to the point it causes Steve to be careless and get stuck with a potentially infected needle. The majority of genre films contain male characters and male-male relationships that fuel hypermasculinity, whereas Benson and Moorhead’s film gives us a platonic relationship between two men who are unafraid to express their feelings or their loving concern for one another. These two men share a love that requires no caveats, a relationship we need to see more of onscreen in 2020.
“The past fucking sucks, man.”
Synchronic‘s race issue is a whopping one, and it undermines almost everything I love about the film. What’s strange is that early on Benson’s screenplay feels like it’s going to focus on Steve’s experience as a Black American. In the film’s second scene introducing its protagonists, we watch Dennis and Steve go to a house where one Synchronic user has been brutally murdered. Cops soon arrive. One cop doesn’t realise Steve—wearing regular clothes because he was out drinking when he got the call—is a paramedic, pulling his gun. Afterwards, the (white) cop shrugs it off, saying: “You show up for work dressed like Tupac, what the fuck do you expect?” Moments later, the same cop calls addicts “junkie monkeys,” a statement not directed at anyone specific yet one that can still easily be taken as racist. From then on there isn’t much else about Steve being Black that really digs into this angle, except one brief time travel adventure that puts him in the middle of a Jim Crow South complete with angry Ku Klux Klan members. None of it amounts to any significant commentary on race/racism, and it only gets worse close to the end.
Steve ultimately figures out how to locate Dennis’s lost daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) after determining the exact ways the Synchronic drug operates in regards to its time travel effects. This brings Steve to what looks to be a time period nearing the end of the Antebellum South, likely in the midst of the American Civil War. [For those trying to nitpick these scenes, early versions of the landmine have been around for centuries, specifically used in the Civil War by Confederates like Gabriel J. Rains.] Long story short, Steve sacrifices himself to time and space when he saves Brianna. Here’s where the real problem lies. Steve’s confronted by a Confederate looter (Bill Oberst Jr.), who believes Steve is a slave. He literally screams at the man “I‘m your fuckin‘ slave” to distract him and let Brianna flee. So, Synchronic closes out with a Black man travelling back in time to give himself over to literal slavery so a white family can be reunited.
Steve becomes a ghostly piece in America’s history of anti-Black racism, physically caught in the Antebellum South where his future as a Black person—even in the ‘newly free’ United States that would follow the Civil War—is left highly uncertain. Doubly concerning to me is the plot thread of Steve’s family being unearthed in gruesome Gothic fashion by Hurricane Katrina isn’t followed through significantly. Steve doesn’t die to join his family on the spiritual plane. He suffers a spiritual death by revisiting, and becoming part of, the Gothic pain of his Black ancestors in America.
What’s most troublesome is that Steve’s whole plot in the film starts with him struggling to find purpose in life. He’s a hard drinking, hard partying whore, to the extent he gets himself stabbed by a drug user’s needle at work. Steve’s personal journey is to find a way to settle down, juxtaposing his life with that of Dennis, who has a wife and kid. The ending comes off as Steve finding purpose in Black sacrifice to save a white family, rather than being about one man sacrificing himself for the daughter of his best friend. What it amounts to is a very flippant attitude towards American slavery, and that leaves an awful taste in my mouth.
I want to love Synchronic because its leads give great performances, particularly Mackie, and, issues aside, the story depicts a wonderful relationship between two male friends that’s sadly unusual in a day and age of ever increasing toxic masculinity. Benson and Moorhead do lots of solid stuff in this film, they’re just let down by the screenplay’s confusion when it comes to race issues. If there wasn’t a clear theme of race being built up it wouldn’t matter. The film sets up several key moments that feel as if they’re leading to a critique of America’s racist history, only to end on a note that betrays all that effort.
There could’ve been compelling arguments made in this film about how a Black man can’t escape racism from one era of history to another, as Steve witnesses the casual racism of a cop, then runs into the KKK and later gets transported to a Confederate South. Synchronic never makes a lasting impression in this respect, instead complicating its several clearly race-focused scenes by condemning a Black man to slavery via time travel so a young white girl can be reunited with her family. Steve’s story deserved better, and the elements to make it brilliant are there, but this isn’t the first time genre films have let Black people down, neither will it be the last.