Flashback

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Flashback
"Flashback seems designed to allow multiple simultaneous interpretations." | Photo: Vertigo Releasing

Dark. Mysterious. Ominous – and filled with a sense of existential dread. Or maybe just dread, as I’m not entirely sure what 'existential' adds there, but it sounds good and does seem to be in keeping with the general tone of Flashback. Because in between all the darkness and the mystery there is a good dollop of teenage angst and teenagers musing on the meaning of life.

The film opens, unpropitiously enough, in a hospice where Fredrick Fitzell (Dylan O’Brien) learns that his mother has but days left to live. Downer…

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And then…a chance encounter with a street crazy on his way home unlocks something, some memory…of his past…of an alternative reality? Flashbacks follow, to a past when Fred and his college buddies Sebastian (Emory Cohen) and Andre (Keir Gilchrist) took Mercury, an experimental drug that opens up the doors to perception and drops a whole new perspective on life and reality.

This is the Matrix red pill moment writ large. Perhaps.

Does Mercury unlock the truth? Or does it do untold damage to the mind, leaving the victim forevermore locked into reliving the past and imagined alternative presents through a series of fake memories?

Good question. What, too, of Cindy (Maika Monroe) the mysterious woman who was there that night, the one and only time Fredrick swallowed the Mercury tablet, and has never been seen since? Also: how come neither Fredrick nor his school friends have given a moment’s thought to Cindy’s fate until today?

That’s more than enough questions to be getting on with. Except, as the film dissolves into increasingly rapid flashbackery, you might start to wonder if that is really what this is: a traumatic re-visioning of a past event through the perspective of unresolved trauma today? Or something altogether else: a nightmare present in which Fredrick is imagining himself into a dead-end future?

Why, too, his obsession with drawing stuff? Why doesn’t his present partner/wife/fiancée want him to? Why the recurrent images of things breaking?

There is much to unpack here. Fredrick’s experience when he takes the Mercury seems to have much in common with a bad LSD trip. Or rather, since I’ve never been on that excursion myself, what I am guessing others who share my LSD-free-state imagine a bad trip to be like.

The rapid, at times stroboscopic, inter-cutting of past, further past, present, alternative present and future will likely annoy and frustrate some viewers in equal measure. Let’s face it: if you didn’t like Inception, then Flashback is an even bigger ask on credulity and imagination.

There are also some genuinely scary moments. At least I, powder puff I, was genuinely apprehensive at certain points and if not quite viewing with one hand over my eyes, was preparing to look away before the bad things appeared again.

The macabre tone to proceedings, espesh in the early part of the film, is artfully managed by a variety of cinematic tricks. Loads of sombre bass notes and not much else in the aharmonious opening score. A washed out, grey colour palette which, at times of insight, switches to sunlit technicolour… bit of a cliché, that! Also, that inter-cutting, between ordinary everyday faces and images and something much more horrific. But, because only glimpsed for a fraction of a second, so much worse.

The film’s original title was The Education Of Fredrick Fitzell and, given the profusion of films called Flashback out on imdb, it feels as though writer and director Christopher MacBride might have done better staying with that. For Fredrick is most definitely on a journey to find out, to be educated. Though whether the eventual point of arrival will be the realisation, as one character opines, that we exist simultaneously at all points in time at all points in every possible universe (hmmm: LSD analogue, hippy philosophy…I see what you did there), or whether the lesson is the somewhat more prosaic “be kinder to your mum and find peace," is hard to say.

Whatever. You might draw some conclusion by watching the film again. Or you might not. Because Flashback seems designed to allow multiple simultaneous interpretations, which is only an issue if that is an issue for you.

It’s not naturally my sort of film: readers of this site will be well aware of my aversion to horror and scary stuff. But it drew me in, pinned me down and in the end pretty much forced me to watch through to the end. It was that absorbing. Or maybe addictive.

Yes. Flashback might feel, at times, like a very bad trip indeed. But it pulls together nicely at the end, and is well worth a watch.

Reviewed on: 03 Jun 2021
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After encountering a man from his past, a young man attempts to piece together his fragmented recollections about taking an experimental drug called Mercury, which could be connected to a girl's disappearance.

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