Benson & Moorhead: Synchronic (2021)
Synchronic is the latest from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and it’s a strange fever dream of a film. We start with a couple taking a drug that appears to transport them into an alternative universe, before shifting to a pair of paramedics, Steve Denube, played by Anthony Mackie, and Dennis Dannelly, played by Jamie Dornan, as they attempt to combat a drug crisis in New Orleans. Watching the opening scenes, as they move from one horrific tableau to the next, I realised how rarely paramedics feature in first responder horror, even though they’re often the first people on the scene. And the horror here is palpable, since nearly all Steve and Dennis’ patients are injured in some arcane way, typically by implements that seem to have emerged from a different era, even though nobody can explain how they reached the present.
After a while it becomes clear that these cases are all linked, but that never quite creates the sustained focus of a more conventional procedural narrative. Instead, Benson and Moorhead opt for long camera takes in claustrophobic spaces, and brief cosmic interludes when the stars above seem to speed up or slow down, both of which confound space and time so that each case appears to be sequestered in its own terrifying pocket of spacetime. In effect, every paramedic incident seems to unfold in a discrete parallel universe, meaning there’s no closure to any of the cases – just the repeated trauma of arriving at the scene for the first time. In other words, these are first responders in the most profound sense – they do nothing more than respond, and never discover the fate of their patients, before the next response beckons.
Still, there are a few clues that subsist from scene to scene – most notably empty packets of “Synchronic,” a synthetic drug that has started to pop up in New Orleans. Thanks to an unexpected encounter with the creator of Synchronic, Steve learns that it acts directly upon the pineal gland. Since the pineal gland (supposedly) regulates spacetime into a linear experience, Synchronic opens up the true nature of time, albeit for only seven minutes at a time. Whereas older users only get a brief glimpse of spacetime, younger people can vanish entirely into other time periods, since their pineal gland is less calcified – and that’s exactly what happens to Dennis’ daughter Brianna, played by Ally Ioannides, when she takes the drug.
Although Dennis’ pineal gland is too calcified to recover Brianna, Steve has an advantage – a tumor on his pineal gland, which has prevented it properly calcifying. During the second half of the film, Steve experiments with Synchronic, gradually learning its properties, which fuse space and time more completely than most other sci-fi films I’ve seen. The central tenet of Synchronic is that it takes you back in time at the place where you take it, suggesting a clear correlation between space and time. However, minute changes in location radically change the timeframe. So, while Steve’s use of Synchronic always takes him back to the location of his living room, the time period shifts depending on whether he is sitting on the couch, standing behind the couch, standing at the window, or in some marginally different position.
Rather than time and space existing in a realistic linear relationship, they’re presented as reciprocally bound in the manner of general relativity. Steve might go back in time to the same space, but his temporal experience is never entirely independent of that space, since it’s dependent on the small inflections he makes within it. Space and time become inextricable, as they appear to be in the pockets of spacetime that comprise the film’s first act. While Steve and Dennis are investigating the after-effects of Synchronic, we appear to have been watching them from the vantage point of Synchronic all along, although this realisation only kicks in retrospectively, which makes them seem even more sequestered in spacetime. No scene in the film feels continuous or linear with another, giving us a pretty good approximation of what a hallucinogen must feel like – a weird distorted temporal high.
Steve’s attempt to recover Brianna takes us through different spacetime pockets in the history of what we now call New Orleans – and Synchronic works brilliantly as a New Orleans film. No other American city is so acutely aware of its own historical strata, since most of the city is reclaimed land, but reclaimed to different extents, producing dramatic fluctuations in the geology, topography and water table. As a result, New Orleans defies conventional Gothic approaches, and especially the traditional Gothic trope of the return of the repressed, since the repressed is always partly visible here, in the same way people are buried above ground.
This aspect of the city became even clearer after Hurricane Katrina, especially in the Lower Ninth, where much of Synchronic appears to unfold. While Katrina submerged the city, it also revealed parts of the city that had previously been submerged, both geologically and in the popular imagination. Katrina revealed that the past had always been present – too present for the hurricane to be a proper return of the repressed. Hence Steve’s recurring dream, which is looped into his experience of Synchronic – coming across the coffins of his family, which were returned to the surface by Katrina, without ever having been buried to begin with.
As Katrina clarifies, then, New Orleans defies regular Gothicism, and its fixation with the past, because it is already atemporal in its geology, geography and popular consciousness. Instead, New Orleans requires a kind of quantum gothic to come to terms with its own history, and with the legacy of Katrina, both of which are submerged and visible at the same time, both above and below ground. And it’s this quantum gothic that Synchronic provides, from the grimness of the opening scenes, which evoke the long aftermath of Katrina, to the final scenes, which see Steve rescuing Brianna from the capture of New Orleans in the Civil War.
While this is a powerful ending, however, I also had mixed feelings about it. Since Steve doesn’t have enough Synchronic to follow Brianna back to the present, he flickers for a moment in modern New Orleans, before returning to the Civil War era, where he’s (probably) doomed to remain a slave, or be killed by insurgents. This seemed like a modern update on the “magic negro” trope – a black man who sacrifices himself by transporting himself back to the realm of slavery, for the sake of propping up the white nuclear family, especially since Steve tends to be framed as a player, rather than a family man, for the majority of the film.
That doesn’t take away from the brilliance of the conceit as a whole, nor Mackie’s great performance, which is comic as much as dramatic, injecting some welcome levity into the grim finitude of the opening scenes. Still, the fact that Synchronic ends with Steve’s sacrifice made me long for another twist, or at least a tweak to the conceit, so that the Synchronic drug didn’t contain the spacetime continuum quite as neatly as it finally does here. For large stretches, the film glimpses a truly cosmic horror that the ending doesn’t quite match, although that just sets the next horizon for Benson and Moorhead, who continue to flourish.
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