For the better part of a decade, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead have been outsiders in genre cinema. Resolution, Spring, and The Endless do not follow the usual paths and stories we find in science fiction and horror. That can be frustrating to some audiences, but I remember seeing Resolution at the Tribeca Film Festival and being delighted by it. This was a movie that establish its own strange world, and left the strange suggestion that anything could happen. None of their films had recognizable actors, at least until Synchronic, a trippy thriller that has recognizable stars. Although their modest budget means there are better special effects, the ideas informing Synchronic do not represent the filmmakers at their best.
Male friendship is a common theme among Benson and Moorehead’s work, and that is no different here. Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie) are paramedics in New Orleans, and they have been on some strange calls lately. One guy was butchered by an ancient sword, while another babbles incoherently. It turns out this behavior links to synchronic, a new synthetic drug that is popular about New Orleans’ downtrodden population.
The drug has a strange effect: it causes the user to travel backward in time, seemingly at random periods, for about seven minutes. While most users return to the present, Dennis’ teenage daughter is possibly stuck in the past. As he reels from the loss, Steve has no choice but to take the drug and find her.
There is admirable self-awareness to this material. As Steve careens through time, he openly mocks Back to the Future. On top of that, Benson and Moorehead depict the past with a sense of banality. At one point, Steve finds himself in a swamp, and stumbles onto a violent conquistador. The camera is matter of fact about this, shooting Steve with a serious of patient medium shots. Benson and Moorehead prefer a classic approach to their more stylish counterparts, and that decision again serves the material. Steve has no sense of awe in his time-hopping journey, and ultimately finds it more annoying than anything else.
Synchronic runs into trouble because the stakes are muted. Steve’s journey through has little sense of urgency, even when he accidentally puts himself in danger. What is more interesting – and even a little emotional – is how the film uses the story to explore deeper themes. There are long scenes where Steve and Dennis pontificate about fate, destiny, and death. Their vocation (not accidentally) means these men have plenty of time to consider how people meet their end. Mackie and Dornan are good fits for this material because they suggest intelligence and hard-earned wisdom without being too cute about it. Their friendship seems genuine.
If you take the time travel and mysterious drug out of Synchronic, you have a mature story about two ordinary middle-class men reflecting on their lives and the choices they made. That is the kind of movie we do not see too much nowadays. It is a pity all that time travel – which is central to the premise and handled almost like an thematic afterthought – keeps getting in the way.
Editor’s note: The only way to see Synchronic is in a movie theater. Our reviews are not tacit endorsements for going to the movies. We feel that criticism is more than a consumer recommendation for an entertainment product. It is a debate about art, ideally providing insight and context, and that discussion should continue. If you make the safer decision to skip theaters for now, we hope you return here when the film is available on streaming platforms.