When they’re not busy being the darlings of indie horror cinema, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are, by their own admission, armchair enthusiasts of astrophysics, philosophy and futurism. That heady cocktail of interests has influenced all their films to date, but perhaps none more so than Synchronic, their latest and most ambitious creation.
The film stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan as paramedics and friends Steve and Dennis, who are called out to a series of unusual drug overdoses across New Orleans. Though the victims are found in very different circumstances – one has been stabbed by a centuries-old sword, while others have been burned or frozen to death – they have all taken Synchronic, a designer drug based on the hallucinogen DMT.
Aside from those grisly accidents, the first third of Synchronic is a slow-burning drama about the quiet miseries that Steve and Dennis are mired in. Steve is a disaffected womaniser who has recently been diagnosed with a brain tumour, while Dennis’s marriage is strained by a new baby and his daughter Brianna’s teenage angst. If their lives don’t sound very interesting, that’s because they aren’t. Thankfully, these personal troubles are just a vehicle for a much more intriguing concept.
When Brianna vanishes after taking Synchronic at a frat party, Steve starts to buy up the remaining supplies. He eventually meets the drug’s creator, Dr Kermani, who matter-of-factly reveals that Synchronic manipulates your pineal gland, the same region of the brain as Steve’s brain tumour. It is reminiscent of the resonating device in H. P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond, which lets the user see alternate planes of existence. But instead of seeing eldritch monsters from another dimension, Synchronic changes how you experience the flow of time.
Kermani explains that time isn’t linear and instead works like a vinyl record: you play one track, but the other grooves are always there. “Synchronic is the needle,” he says, letting people travel to the past while physically remaining in the present. The catch is that you have no control over where you end up, and if you manifest in the middle of a forest fire or in the path of a rampaging bull, you will still die in the present.
As soon as Steve starts experimenting with Synchronic in an attempt to find Brianna, the film’s real potential emerges. He approaches the task methodically, rationing out his limited supply to establish the rules of the drug. I won’t reveal much about which time periods Steve travels to, but his encounters are surreal and upsetting in equal measure. The past is a particularly dangerous place for a Black man, and the film is at its best when it explores how time travel is disproportionately terrifying for Steve.
While there are a few holes in the plot – why does the drug never take people to the future, for instance – the potential of Synchronic’s central conceit is obvious. Unfortunately, while the film-makers are no strangers to small budgets, Benson and Moorhead’s ambitions were clearly hamstrung by a lack of funds.
The environments in the past are severely limited, with a few brief glimpses of deserts and snowstorms being about as adventurous as the film-makers can afford. Though they make up for that with some clever tableaus and eerie, roving camerawork, you still sense that Synchronic would have benefitted immeasurably from having twice as much cash – and twice as much time spent mining the horrors of history.
All that said, Benson and Moorhead have still created a grim, uneasy thriller with genuinely hair-raising moments. For all I mourn the potential of the concept, Synchronic is yet more evidence that these film-makers should be given the tools with which they can fully realise their mind-bending ideas.
Now available to rent online.
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