There used to be a comedian named Louis CK who had a standup bit about the historical upside of being white. “Here’s how great it is to be white,” he would say. “I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be fucking awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege — Black people can’t fuck with time machines.” Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s dense and dingy sci-fi thriller “Synchronic” is, among far too many other things, the story of a Black man who fucks with a time machine. Complications ensue.
This isn’t the first film to broach the subject (“Men in Black III” and Martin Lawrence’s “Black Knight” are just two of the more famous examples), and yet few of them have been as pointed or philosophical about the relationship between race and nostalgia. “Synchronic” may be a hot mess of a movie — one that mixes “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and literal bath salts into a muddy swirl of mismatched ideas that don’t have much interest in blending together — but its best stretches have some hazy, ultra-literal fun illustrating why some people in this country might put more stock in the hope for tomorrow than the halcyon glow of yesterday.
It was only a matter of time before Benson and Moorhead earned the money they needed to swing for the fences like this, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that this wildly ambitious filmmaking duo was going to play it safe during the biggest at bat of their lives. These guys have cultivated a small but loyal following on the backs of some go-for-broke indies that texture familiar human terrors with creative horror tropes (“Spring” might reductively be described as “Before Sunrise” with monsters, and “The Endless” as NXIVM in actual purgatory instead of just Albany), and even their less successful meditations on lost time offer compelling evidence that a decent budget is no match for a boundless imagination.
But if “Synchronic” is by far the starriest and most expensive movie that Benson and Moorhead have made to date, that turns out to be as much of a trap as it is an opportunity: These two are never going to have enough money to keep pace with their unchecked creativity, and yet — for the first time in a filmography that should only continue to grow more interesting from here — they seem to have lost sight of their own strengths. Benson and Moorhead will always be guilty of trying to bite off more than they can chew, but this time there’s nothing to stop them from suffocating on their own material. Airless and gasping by the time it reaches the finish line, “Synchronic” perversely winds up feeling like the smallest film they’ve ever made.
Brace for a long-winded plot setup that should probably come with its own seatbelt: Mackie and Jamie Dornan play Steve and Dennis, Louisiana paramedics and lifelong friends who’ve started to drift apart with the subtle but irreversible brokenness of the polar ice sheets. Dennis is married to the under-written Tara (Katie Aselton), and struggling to keep up with two daughters born 18 years apart. Steve is a semi-permanent bachelor who busies himself with empty sex because he’s too caught up in the conditional tense to even think about commitment.
The most honest conversation these two men are able to have is in the back of their local strip club, where they sit in a sad booth that’s framed by an infinity mirror that doubles as an idiot-proof metaphor: Just because Steve and Dennis are stuck in this dimension doesn’t mean they can’t waste their lives wondering about the past, worrying over the future, and second-guessing the choices reflected back at them by their parallel selves.
But Steve won’t have to wonder for long, nor — it turns out — does he have long to wonder. After thirtysomething years of waiting for something better to come along, Steve learns that he has an inoperable brain tumor on his pineal gland. It’s hard to imagine how that kind of news might come with a silver lining, but Benson and Moorhead find one so contrived that you aren’t sure whether to roll your eyes at them or golf clap at their gall. You see, a new designer drug called Synchronic is laying waste to the local junkie population, and baffling the EMTs who discover its victims with stab wounds from ancient swords, snake bites from non-native reptiles, or horribly dismembered at the bottom of an elevator shaft (the writer-directors have a lot of fun with these bad trips, which introduce the movie with a woozy jolt of psychedelic horror that soon melts into something much lighter).
Synchronic, it’s revealed at the end of a deliberately unfocused first act that’s as somnambulant as it is spread thin, is a DMT-like drug that allows people to experience time as it actually is, and not in the way that we tend to perceive it — Tralfamadorian, as opposed to linear. The adult pineal gland is too calcified for the drug to work its true magic, but teenagers who take even a single dose are physically transported to their precise location exactly as it was 50 or 500 or five million years ago; teenagers… or, say, a 42-year-old paramedic whose pineal gland has been preserved by a bottlecap-like tumor for the last few decades!
When Dennis’ 18-year-old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) disappears after taking the drug at a party one night, Steve knows what he has to do: In a demented act of redemption that Steve himself dubs “kangaroo shit loony,” our hero is going to buy all the Synchronic that’s left on store shelves, figure out how it works, rescue Brianna from the wrinkles of time, repair his friendship with her father, and prove once and for all that the present is a miracle to be enjoyed, not escaped.
Whew! If that seems like a difficult premise to set up, well, Benson and Moorhead make it look even harder than it seems. Rather than play things straight and hurry forward to the point in the story when Steve begins experimenting with Synchronic, the writer-directors labor to create a sour vision of the present in which their leads are already unstuck in their own time. “Doubts,” one of them shakes their head, “they never go away.” But for these guys, doubts are just about all they have left, and the scenes meant to illustrate their lives fit together like a pallid jigsaw puzzle that’s missing the pieces it needs to seem whole. It’s a bold and discombobulating gambit that viscerally conveys Steve and Dennis’ condition at the expense of detailing their characters — clunky dialogue like “do it in chemo, bitch!” doesn’t help — and Moorhead shoots New Orleans with a murky jaundice that makes the city look uglier and more expressive than any of the people in it.
But the Big Easy is a subtly integral part of this story, if only for its past. “Synchronic” had to be set in a pocket of America with a certain kind of history — a place that has played host to conquistadors in one century, slave owners in another, and catastrophic flooding in a third. In New Orleans (and its excellent tax incentives), Benson and Moorhead see a city that has always been able to kill you at a moment’s notice, and that’s especially true for someone who looks like Steve. Their movie finally finds its groove when Steve begins experimenting with the drugs, a process that leads to a series of harrowing (and sometimes funny) temporal misadventures that are touched with a souped-up version of the mystery that fueled the directors’ previous work.
The racial overtones of these excursions have no real connection to the story of a terminally sick man searching for a meaningful appreciation of the present, but there’s a pointed irony to a Black paramedic — who’s mistaken for a criminal during one of his shifts and almost shot by a police officer — looking for answers in America’s past. But “Synchronic” hedges on even the most intriguing of its many ideas, as the film scrambles to connect Steve’s quantum leaps with Brianna’s disappearance, and falls so far short of closing the gap between them that the film’s last act amounts to a cascading series of head-scratching moments that don’t have a strong enough emotional foundation to support the pseudoscience behind them.
Dornan and Mackie are adrift through most of this movie, but the heartfelt thrum of their final scene together is a testament to the intrinsic humanity of their performances — and to the grace of a visionary filmmaking team that’s capable of creating the most beautiful moments, even if they often lose sight of the most effective way of reaching them. “Synchronic” is easy to applaud for being what Steve might describe as “brain damage orangutan fucking crazy,” but Benson and Moorhead’s ode to the present doesn’t leave you with a newfound appreciation for the moment at hand, so much as with a supercharged nostalgia for their previous work, and some hope for a future that might see them fulfill their potential on a scale worthy of their imagination.
Well Go USA will release “Synchronic” in theaters and drive-ins on Friday, October 23.
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