Before hitting play on 2019’s Synchronic, there’s one thing you should know.
It’s not that it’s a low-budget sci-fi film with an intriguing premise. It’s not that it stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan as best friends. It’s not that its directors helmed a couple of episodes of Marvel’s Moon Knight.
It’s that Synchronic will really, really annoy you with its plot holes and inconsistencies and nonsensical time travel mechanics that loop around in your head until a miraculous counterargument emerges from the haze and convinces you that everything makes sense after all.
Surprisingly, this is a recommendation to watch Synchronic. A frustrating, divisive, dark indie gem with flashes of brilliance. It’s yet another taste of the exciting talent of directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (check out 2017’s The Endless for a twisted horror flavor). Just lean into the anger Synchronic inspires, and eventually — on the other side — you’ll have a rewarding experience.
Mackie and Dornan play Steve and Dennis, two remarkably laid-back paramedics working in New Orleans. They’re called out to treat a series of people who’re spouting incoherent stories after taking a drug called Synchronic.
Steve and Dennis investigate the drug’s origins and impossible time travel capabilities, while also dealing with their crumbling personal lives. Steve is a jaded ladies man, and Dennis is stuck in a dysfunctional marriage.
The best parts of Synchronic involve the actual sci-fi element itself. The discovery. Steve and Dennis walking along a dark road in the middle of the night, chatting away about their normal lives, until they enter a house and discover a shocking scene out of a horror movie, where someone’s been stabbed and a medieval sword is inexplicably sticking out of a wall.
Thanks to a couple of plot devices, eventually Steve takes the drug himself. This is where Synchronic becomes thrilling in an impressively visceral way.
Starting from its low-key grounding point, the flick sends Steve, and us, off into the frightening unknown. The threat of sudden and violent death hovers over everything, because in this time travel story, Steve is a Black man, and going back to certain places comes with a whole other layer of danger.
The mechanics of how the time travel drug works are compellingly teased out as Steve conducts experiments. An analogy involving a record player is worth one character’s appearance alone. At one point, directors Benson and Moorhead shake things up by giving us Steve’s first-person perspective, placing us right in the driver’s seat to experience what rears up from the tense and unpredictable darkness of the next location.
Other aspects of the drug, including a minor stretch following who’s behind its creation, fizzle out. Plus, while effective in some ways, the general sense of realism can expose just how ridiculous the drug’s capabilities are.
Still, nifty and smart directing and Steve’s dry sense of humor delivered with Mackie’s deadpan swagger, shine above Synchronic’s obvious rougher edges. The story is nowhere near perfect, chaining itself to the thinly developed emotional core, involving Steve, Dennis and Dennis’ daughter Brianna. (A horrible scene involving Steve’s dog is either an example of poor character decision-making or an intentional yank of our emotional heartstrings.)
Synchronic’s bittersweet ending is frustrating but doesn’t reduce the impact of its greater parts. Hopefully, the flick will set you off on a spree watching Benson and Moorhead’s other movies, four of which form part of a connected universe (some connections are stronger than others).
Synchronic is streaming on Netflix now. It can be slow, with occasionally dodgy dialogue and an ending that’ll spin you out of control. You need peak movie-watching attention to absorb subtle details that explain what happens. And yet it’s still up to interpretation whether absolutely everything makes sense. Take the plunge? Decide for yourself.