Christopher Macbride’s long gestating second feature (following 2012’s The Conspiracy) is a psychedelic head-scratcher that tangles the past and present of one man into a drug-fuelled Gordian knot that is not easily unpicked. Formerly titled ‘The Education of Fredrick Fitzell’, the intriguing, vaguely Dickensian title has been jettisoned in favour of the accurate, but infinitely more generic Flashback. It’s a move that may harm this admirably ambitious sci-fi thriller. But, despite some missteps, a compelling premise and excellent lead performance from the increasingly impressive Dylan O’Brien make this well worthy of investigation for an audience who love a cinematic jigsaw.

Fredrick Fitzell (O’Brien) has a comfortable, but fairly unremarkable life as an IT analyst at A.N. Other company. He lives with long-time girlfriend Karen (Hannah Gross), and is currently dealing with the impending death of his dementia-stricken mother (Liisa Repo-Martell). He begins to suffer nightmarish visions that appear to be pointing to his past, and one night in particular under the influence of an experimental and potent hallucinogen called Mercury. These blackouts all refer back to a girl named Cindy (Maika Monroe), whom he hasn’t seen since that evening 13 years earlier. Convinced that the enigmatic Cindy hold the answers, Fred begins to search for clues to her whereabouts as his past and present begin to bleed into each other in increasingly extreme ways.

Since Donnie Darko and Primer showed us what level of complexity can be achieved with minimal resources, independent filmmakers have delighted in bamboozling appreciative audiences. Flashback undoubtedly taps into similar time-loop paradoxes as these classics, while teasing otherworldly possibilities like in James Ward Byrkit‘s conceptually brilliant Coherence, or even the demonic apparitions of Jacob’s Ladder. This is all framed through the Vertigo-like obsession with a mysterious, possibly doomed, blonde that powers films like Rian Johnson‘s Brick and David Robert Mitchell‘s paranoid, picaresque Under the Silver Lake. It’s something of a dazzling harlequin patchwork, but has enough stylistic invention and narrative confidence for its own voice to be heard clearly above its touchstones.

The impact of Flashback comes from a carefully constructed sense of place, necessary for disorientation not to give way into outright abstraction, and some phenomenally innovative and clever editing from Matt Lyon. Rarely has a film managed to convey a hellish bad trip so convincingly. Lyons chops Fred’s hysterical spasms into jagged cuts slightly out of order and spliced together a few frames at a time to give the impression of stop motion, or of movements glimpsed through a strobe light. The technique disturbs the soul as much as it perplexes the eye. It helps that O’Brien is able to offer subtle modulations on repeated events that keep us anchored even as Fred himself becomes increasingly unmoored.

There are two central problems that Flashback struggles to overcome. With its puzzle-box narrative, it’s clear that it aims for an audience keen to pick apart its mysteries over repeat viewings. But there is so much stuffed into its narrative that too close an examination risks everything collapsing into an impressionistic splurge. Macbride also sets his film up as a purely cerebral exercise only to switch gear suddenly and bloodily tap into a vein of pure emotion. There are admittedly visual breadcrumbs indicating this may be the route the film may take, but it feels a little like a serotonin band aid applied to cover the feeling that it doesn’t quite hang together satisfactorily. Is it a cheat? Not quite. Even if it’s ultimately a piece of narrative obfuscation, it’s still undeniably effective.

While Flashback doesn’t provide us with a genuinely human portrait so much as an intricate, Cubist representation of such; there is no little pleasure in trying to solve the puzzle of Fredrick Fritzell, even if that is all he ever is. It won’t satisfy everyone, but there is more than enough ambition, craft and technique to make Monroe’s Cindy a white rabbit well worth following.

Available On-demand from Fri 4 June 2021