What happens at the end of Flashback, and what it does mean? The film, which is written and directed by Christopher MacBride, stars Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner) as Fred Fitzell. Starting a new job and just married, a chance encounter with someone from his past causes Fred to remember Cindy Williams (Maika Monroe, It Follows), an old classmate. Though he went to high school with Cindy and even had unexpressed feelings for her, she vanished before final exams, and no one seems to know where she went or what became of her.
While he pieces together what happened to Cindy with the help of his friends, Fred is also reeling from the fact that his mother, Mrs. Fitzell (Liisa Repo-Martell, The Umbrella Academy), is suffering from an illness that has profoundly limited her memory and ability to communicate. These two events plunge Fred back to the night when he, alongside Cindy and two other friends, took the pure version of Mercury or “Merc,” a drug that allows its users to escape reality and experience alternative lives.
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Gradually, Fred starts to question whether he’s misremembering the way that night unfolded. Things only get more complicated when Fred eventually finds Cindy living in the now-abandoned building where they ingested pure Merc more than a decade ago. From there, the mystery thriller continually cuts between the past and present and possible futures. It also shows multiple versions of the same scene. But despite its complex structure and the fact that it is open to more than one reading, there is a way to examine the movie and its various timelines in a way that honors its central themes and ending. Here’s how all of the elements in Flashback come together.
The Real Timeline in Flashback Explained
The main timeline in Flashback is the one that viewers are presented with at the very beginning: Approaching the age of thirty and questioning his life choices while also reeling from his mother’s diagnosis, Fred begins to imagine what his life would be like if he went down a different path. There is a strong case to be made that the thriller unfolds in a largely linear fashion, with deviations occurring only when Fred is looking back at his past or when he’s experiencing the effects of Merc. This is suggested in the first few minutes of the film, as the first flashback to Fred’s high school years happens when the character dozes off in his car and awakes, startled, sometime later. Another hint is given in a later scene. Fred is in bed with his fiancée Karen (Hannah Gross, Joker), and he apologizes for the fact that his mind has wandered off. This serves as a clue that the prior scene, with Fred as a teenager, is simply the result of Fred being lost in his memories.
Perhaps the strongest evidence that supports this reading occurs toward the end of MacBride’s feature. When he’s asked to deliver an important presentation at work that he’s unprepared for, Fred rapidly loses his cool. He begins to yell at others in the room, having to be restrained by security. However, just as it looks like Fred will be forcibly thrown out of the meeting, the camera cuts to Fred at his desk. Although he’s late for the meeting, it hasn’t started yet. His boss, Evelyn (Amanda Brugel, The Handmaid’s Tale) looks at him angrily, wondering why he’s just standing around. This is yet another indication that some of the scenes in Flashback are merely Fred’s imagination of how things could happen, rather than being a distinct timeline of its own.
It is worth noting that the past that Fred looks back on isn’t static. He replays key moments from his high school years, changing them in significant ways depending on how he feels at that particular moment. This could be interpreted as Fred’s shifting perspective, rather than as evidence of the younger Fred being the main protagonist.
The Invasive Life-Form Explained
More than Fred’s interest in finding out what happened to Cindy, more than even his sense of dissatisfaction at how his life turned out, the key component to understanding Flashback takes place when the teenaged Fred ingests pure Merc for the first time and learns of its purpose. He is told about an “invasive life-form” by the Scarred Man (Connor Smith, It Chapter Two), who says to Fred: “Numbers. Language. Color. Shape. All a misinterpretation of the information around you. A misinterpretation imposed on you by an invasive life-form that is trying to control your consciousness. The substance you ingested temporarily counteracts the influence of the invasive life-form that is trying to force you to perceive information in the same manner as itself: in a linear fashion. To perceive choices as having inescapable outcomes. Outcomes it has dictated to you, thereby controlling all of your choices and, in effect, eliminating them. It achieves this goal by influencing you to perceive the most elaborate of all misinterpretations. Time.”
Taken literally, this could point to simulation theory or even the existence of aliens that control humanity. But, in Flashback, the meaning is more personal: it points to Fred’s mother. From the opening scene of the thriller, it’s teased that the main character experiences a traumatic incident during his childhood. It’s suggested that this incident has prevented Fred from being more adventurous and following his true passions. For most of MacBride’s feature, it’s unclear what this incident is or what it signifies. Viewers are only aware that Fred thinks about the incident constantly, which manifests itself in a hazy but frightening image of an open mouth. The lack of clarity on the image might indicate that Fred has suppressed the memory, or symbolically that he doesn’t see it for what it really is.
The image haunts him all the same. Fred sees that open mouth and fragments of that childhood trauma in stressful situations, such as when he’s confronted by his boss or when he’s called out by his teacher. He sees it, as well, when the police follow him into the abandoned building where Cindy lives. Fred sees it, in other words, whenever other life-forms try to control his choices rather than allowing him to create his own path. For Fred, at least, it all goes back to that foundational moment in his childhood that he’s buried deep. Any time he’s confronted, whenever he feels restrained, he returns to it.
Towards the end of Flashback, Fred goes to visit his mother in the hospital. When he sees her moving her mouth and parting her lips, it all comes into focus. That open mouth, that frightening image he’s conjured in his mind, belongs to his mom. When he was a baby, Fred wandered off. It’s suggested that Fred hurt himself by crawling away and falling down. Fred remembers that his mother yelled at him once she found him, scared that he could have been seriously injured. The memory of his mother yelling has clearly stuck with Fred. It’s stopped him from living the life he might’ve wanted and taking chances. Or, as the Scarred Man might put it, it has limited his choices. For other characters, for other people, the invasive life-form could mean many things. In the case of Fred Fitzell, it hits close to home. That memory, and the anxiety that stems from it, is the invasive life-form that constantly infiltrates his thoughts.
Flashback Ending Explained
After he imagines himself losing control in the board room, Fred decides to skip his meeting and go live with Cindy in the abandoned building. While it’s unclear how long he stays with her, whether it’s for a few weeks or longer, the two ingest Merc together. Under the influence of the drug, Fred imagines that he’s a skilled painter and that he lives with Cindy in a spacious home. In another vision, he’s exploring the desert with Cindy. But despite the ability of Merc to transport him into idealistic futures, Fred still feels the pull of his past. This crystallizes when a random object breaks. It reminds Fred of when, as a child, he broke a small statue that meant a lot to his mother. He then goes to visit his mom in the hospital, which is when he recalls the traumatic memory of falling and his mother yelling at him.
The memory, the realization that he’d been blocking it for so long, proves to be overwhelming for Fred. He turns to leave, but he stops when he hears his mother say his name. She recognizes him, she remembers who he is, which catches Fred off-guard given her condition. Like much of what unfolds in Flashback, Fred doesn’t verbalize what he’s feeling. But, as the tears run down his face, as he holds his mother’s hand, it’s a clearly transformative moment of connection. Right then, Fred understands that his mother had only meant to protect him and had only wanted what was best for him. Rather than thinking of the time his mother yelled at him, or the times he rebelled against her and caused her pain, Fred now thinks of happier memories. Viewers are treated to a fast montage of Fred’s mother, smiling and laughing. This indicates that Fred’s perspective on their relationship has shifted for the better.
In the aftermath of the breakthrough that Fred goes through, he realizes that he can’t continue to explore alternate lives with Cindy while under the influence of Merc. He returns to his job, and he gets back together with Karen. But he also finds a way to say goodbye to Cindy. Throughout the film, one key scene repeats itself in notably different ways. In the first iteration, in what’s likely the true version of what occurred, teenaged Fred and Cindy glance at each other from across the hallway. Though he obviously wants to, Fred doesn’t say anything to her. In the second iteration, Fred approaches Cindy and they excitedly run off together. And, in the final version, which is seen after the breakthrough, Fred looks at Cindy and they exchange knowing smiles. In his memories, Fred will always think of Cindy with gratitude. But he recognizes that he can’t follow her path any longer. It’s worth noting, again, that the second and third iteration of the scene are likely Fred altering his memories depending on how he feels in the moment.
In Flashback’s final scene, we get another example of how much of the film rests on Fred’s changing perspective. Fred’s mother quietly passes on in her sleep while he’s visiting her. Viewers are then treated to one final flashback, returning to Fred as a baby. In this memory, Fred contemplates wandering off away from his mother’s supervision. But after she warns him against doing so, Fred crawls back into his mother’s arms in what is clearly a joyful recollection. This is juxtaposed, in the present, with Fred curling up in his mother’s arms. This points to the fact that Fred has made peace with his past, replacing a traumatic memory with one that is much more blissful.
The Real Meaning of Flashback
Flashback‘s use of Mrs. Fitzell’s illness is a setup to explore many themes, primarily the feeling of being adrift and harboring regrets in adulthood. Fred begins the film feeling dissatisfied in his life and questioning the choices he made. He wonders how he might’ve turned out if he pursued his high school crush. However, rather than tell a simple story of a young man that feels unhappy with the monotony of his existence, MacBride as writer and director opts for more nuance. Fred gets the chance to experience the alternative lives he could have lived with Cindy, as a painter and an explorer, thanks to the effects of Merc. In the end, he makes the decision to return to his own life. Flashback seems to posit that, while it’s important and even vital to ruminate on the paths untaken, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the current path is incorrect. At least for Fred, he ends the movie in the same place he started it. He has a steady job and a loving romantic relationship. He’s just learned to appreciate those things more.
This could perhaps be gleaned by noting the film’s previous title. The thriller was initially titled The Education of Fredrick Fitzell. It could be said that the education part of it relates to Fred learning from his past, unfulfilled in the case of Cindy, and painful in the case of his childhood, in order to come away with a better understanding of his present. The movie’s inciting incident, with Mrs. Fitzell’s diagnosis worsening, speaks to a universal truth: Faced with difficult circumstances, particularly the loss of a parent, it’s common for a person to grapple with their hopes and dreams and the complicated memories they’d rather not acknowledge.
This is essentially the journey Fred goes on, a journey similar to the one featured in Donnie Darko and The Butterfly Effect, in which the protagonist experiences extraordinary circumstances that fundamentally alters their understanding. In this sense, Flashback is a continuation of a strong subgenre of sci-fi. And just like those other titles in the subgenre, it will continue to inspire multiple interpretations.
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