Movies That Settle: Flatliners (1990)

Posted: May 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

Being quarantined as we have all been over these past few months, I have found myself channel-surfing a little more frequently, and I often find myself stopping on movies that I normally probably wouldn’t go out of my way to watch. I don’t know if you would call these Anti-Shawshank Movies or what, but I have to say that there are almost no circumstances where I would watch Blue Chips with Nick Notle and Shaq, but it’s on Showtime if I ever want to. (In case you didn’t know, there’s a theory floating around online that there are movies, like Shawshank Redemption, that you always have to stop and watch if they are on, no matter what you are doing.)

In my surfing recently, I came across the 1990

Flatliners-Posterversion of the thriller Flatliners, a movie that I enjoyed quite a bit back in the 90’s 

but is definitely an Anti-Shawshank Movie today, because I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it again. But after watching it recently, I’m not sure why. Not because it’s a great movie, but because of what it represents. It’s a fine movie, but it’s a better time capsule for the era in which it was made. Even though it was 1990, and the 80’s had just ended, there are virtually no vestiges of the 80’s in it, other than Kevin Bacon. It’s not necessarily “evergreen,” because Julia Roberts has some very 90’s jeans, and William Baldwin’s VHS tape collection is pretty dated, but overall, the story could be placed in any decade, as evidenced by the fact that they tried to remake it in 2017. I didn’t see it, and I don’t really think very many people did, but Kiefer Sutherland came back for it so I guess he felt it was worthy, or they paid him enough money. He plays a different character though, which I feel is a totally missed opportunity. I guess that’s what makes it a remake and not a sequel. Maybe I’ll talk more about that later (I’m literally making this up as I go, if you couldn’t tell).

Anyway, the 1990 Flatliners sees 5 young actors playing 4 young med students, and just as the med students are trying to unlock the secrets of the afterlife, the 5 young actors are trying to unlock the secrets of Hollywood, with varying degrees of success.

flatliners-flatliners-8459662-800-529Yes, we had just seen Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Kevin Bacon in Tremors, and Kiefer in Young Guns 2, and you might have even caught Oliver Platt in Working Girl, but they were not quite superstars yet, although they were definitely on the cusp. You could argue Roberts was already there, and Platt and William Baldwin never got there, but still, to see these young actors still plying their craft because they need to get to that next level is fun to watch. It’s also fun to recall that Sutherland and Roberts starting dating during filming, and were actually engaged until she broke it off at almost the last minuet and decided to marry Lyle Lovett instead. Weird.

For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, it goes something like this; Sutherland’s Nelson is a med student who has a cockamamie theory that the afterlife is the final frontier, and he has deigns on fame and fortune by exploring it. His plan is to have some of his fellow students stop his heart for one minute and then bring him back with the secrets of what happens when you die. What could go wrong?

At first, not much. They bring Nelson back after one minute of brain-death and he seems fine, although he has a few weird visions of his deceased dog. The rest of his team wants to try it now, and William Baldwin’s Joe outbids Roberts’ Rachel and is next up to die, this time a little longer. There are a couple of complications when they are trying to revive him, but he is finally revived, and his experience was strangely female and erotic (It was established earlier that Joe is a total playboy, despite being engaged. Not only is he a jerk for sleeping around, he also secretly videotapes the women that he beds. That’s definitely not a very #MeToo thing to do.)

Bacon’s David now outbids Rachel and wants to die next, because he’s an atheist and wants to see if his two colleagues are full of it. Then things start to get weird. First, Nelson is visited by a young boy who proceeds to beat the crap out of him, then Joe starts seeing visions of the women whom he has betrayed. Everyone is a little freaked out, but David’s experiment does work, and he does experience something, but feels that there’s no reason to continue and it’s only courting disaster if they keep dying for longer periods.Flatliners

Undaunted, Rachel insists on getting her turn, not telling anyone why she has such an interest in death. David, meanwhile, obviously has a thing for her and is trying to protect her, while Nelson, who had a thing with her before all this, wants to get started on that fame train. He’s also getting the shit beat out of him every night by this little kid.

Meanwhile, David is on the train on the way to “kill” Rachel and is suddenly confronted by a literal vision of his past: Winnie Hicks, a girl he used to make fun of in elementary school, swearing at him in front of the other passengers, and she is still only ten years old. He takes this new information to his friends, and insists they revive Rachel before her appointed time. It goes really bad and she almost dies for real, but she is revived after five minutes of being dead. As she recovers in the bathroom, David reveals what happened to him, and Joe also comes clean about seeing the women from “The Joe Hurley Video Library.” This forces Nelson to reveal why his face is all bruised and battered, saying that it was done by Billy Mahoney, a kid they used to pick on in school. He still blows it off, though, just saying that, “sometimes the kid gets carried away.”

The movie starts to get off-track a little here because the characters seem rather unimpressed that their sins are being manifested physically. Nelson is still obsessed with the fame factor, thinking that Rachel will come out of the bathroom with the answers to life and death and that the world will worship her, “just like you do,” as he tells David, which is a really good dig.

Rachel doesn’t, in fact, come out of the bathroom with the secrets of life and death, but we do learn why she has been obsessed with it this whole time; when she was a child, she walked in on her Dad doing heroin, and he was so ashamed that he ran out of the house and shot himself in his truck, and she always felt responsible for his death. Now she is seeing him everywhere she goes. It’s sort of unclear if she was ever fully aware of what her Dad was doing in there before this point, and she was just feeling guilty because, well, he’s dead. I’m not sure if it was just the script revealing it in pieces or I was just being naive, but probably a bit of both. I mean, in 1990, I was 14 and definitely knew very little about heroin.

We’re not really sure if Nelson has just taken too many blows to the head at this point, but he is still not moved by any of this. In fact, he sort accuses them of being a little dramatic, saying that David’s playground story is a bit flimsy, that Joe merely getting “caught with his videotapes down” was deserved (and he’s not wrong about that), and Rachel, well, her he just seems pissed at over the whole David thing.

David’s solution to his Winnie Hicks problem is to find her and apologize. This part is definitely dated because he ends up looking her mother up in the phone book and gets Winnie’s address. He is about to drive out to her house when Nelson shows up and asks to come along, saying he doesn’t want to be alone because that’s when Billy Mahoney shows up to beat on him with a hockey stick. I guess when you’ve already died and come back to life, the idea of a kid from your past showing up and physically beating on you is small potatoes, because no one is freaking out about this.

David finds Winnie living a quiet life in the suburbs, with a husband and a daughter and a garden. He apologizes for the way he made her feel, and she at first blows it off, saying she couldn’t remember what he could have said. He presses a little, and her husband shows up to ask if everything is ok and see who this strange man is in his greenhouse. She shoos him away, and points out to David, rather sternly, that she has a family and “hasn’t been that ugly, little girl in quite some time.” David assures her that she was never ugly, but realizes that he is probably bringing up some bad memories and excuses himself. On his way out, however, Winnie calls back to him, and thanks him for the apology.

Meanwhile, back in David’s car, Nelson is once again attacked by Billy Mahoney. David shows up just in time to see Nelson struggling in the car with no one. So, right there, David the Scientists should probably just have written the whole Winnie Hicks thing off as day-dreaming and written Nelson off as just a nutjob. But when they get back to the city, they find out that Rachel saw her Dad again and freaked out.  David tells Joe and Oliver Platt’s Randall (who never attempted the experiment and is basically here for comic relief) to help Nelson find Billy Mahoney, while he decides to stay with Rachel and tell her about his Winnie Epiphany. The only real hang-up there, as Rachel points out, is that Winnie is alive and her father is dead. Bummer.

Nelson’s comrades drive him to see Billy Mahoney, and are shocked to discover that they are in a cemetery. Nelson says he knew Billy was there because he put him there. As kids, Nelson and his buddies chased Billy up a tree and started throwing rocks at him. Nelson apparently threw the fateful rock that knocked Billy out of the tree and Billy impaled himself on a branch on the way down. His dog also got crunched with a branch in the incident. Nelson then says he was taken away from his family and sent to a school for wayward boys when he was eleven, thinking that he paid his dues. But that’s not really how guilt works. He believes that the only way to atone for his sins, as David did, is to flatline himself and go talk to Billy Mahoney in the afterlife. He takes off and leaves them in the cemetery at night, which is just creepy.

As this is going on, David and Rachel have hooked up, but she’s still seeing her Dad everywhere. David has to leave to rescue Joe and Randall, and when she is alone, Rachel decides the only way for this to end is to confront the visions. When she sees her father again, she sees him (and we see him) with the spoon and the needle and the whole set-up, injecting himself. She speaks to him, and he says he’s sorry and they hug. So, I guess we’re to assume that she just needed that confirmation that it wasn’t her fault? That he was just ashamed and she shouldn’t feel responsible? I don’t know, but her spirits seem lifted. There are articles online about the misogyny of this movie as it relates to this plot, and the Joe plot, but anyone who thinks that is probably giving the writer too much credit. I think it’s actually just lazy writing.

Anyway, Nelson calls her to tell her his plan and to say good-bye. She tries to tell him that it’s all good, but she doesn’t know the whole “I killed a kid” storyline, so she can’t convince him not to flatline. He does, and in the afterlife, he has switched places with Billy Mahoney and he is in the tree and Billy is chucking rocks at him, laughing. Billy hurls the fateful stone, as we saw Young Nelson do, and Adult Nelson falls and impales himself on the branch.

In the real world, Nelson’s comrades have arrived and are trying to revive him, to no avail. After twelve minutes of being dead, they are ready to give up, and Rachel points out that in his voice on the phone with her, she could hear that he felt he deserved to die. But David refuses to believe it, saying that one mistake in his childhood doesn’t mean he deserves to die. He keeps trying, and in the afterlife, Nelson awakens and can hear his friends calling him back. Standing over him is Billy Mahoney, this time smiling. Billy and Nelson’s dog then calmly walk into the light and wave good-bye. I guess Nelson realizing what it was like was enough, and he is absolved of his guilt. In the real world, he is revived, and everyone is happy. Yay?

In 1990, I definitely missed a lot of the themes that were at work here. I think I just saw all the beautiful people and thought it was just a fun movie about dying and coming back, but there’s a lot more going on, obviously. For one, that Joe was a real creep, even though he’s never really portrayed as a bad guy. He gets what’s coming to him, of course, when his fiancee’ shows up unannounced and sees his video tape collection and leaves him. She claims that she’s not leaving him because he cheated but because he betrayed all those women by video-taping them without their knowledge. It was probably a little of both, but the reality is he was a scumbag and she could do better. I don’t think he technically atoned for his sins, like the others, but he paid the price. And let’s face it, I know he didn’t know his fiancee’ was coming, but he probably should have hid those tapes in a better spot, so he definitely deserved it.

Rachel’s story is a little more complex, and I suppose it should have been obvious to me all along that her guilt of not knowing the real reason he committed suicide was what was driving her to study death. So, what normally would have taken years of therapy is resolved in minutes by just flatlining and then having a hug with the old man. But there are other, more subtle moments here; for one, her father was a veteran who had just come home and they were having a party for him the day he died, so it’s never mentioned but clearly implied that his time in the service probably led to his drug addiction. Also, during her flashback, after Young Rachel sees her Dad shooting up, and he runs out of the house, we see her mother scolding her, saying, “It’s all your fault.” Heavy stuff. No wonder she felt bad. Because it’s just one plot out of several in the movie, it’s never really dealt with that this guy was a veteran who had served his country, probably in Vietnam, now that I think about the timeline, who had a serious drug problem, and his life ended tragically, and this is the sadness that he left behind. You could have done the whole movie about that.

There’s some interesting storytelling in David’s plot, as well. I mean, kids making fun of classmates unfortunately was something that went on a lot back in the day, but the filmmakers put a spin on this one by making Winnie Hicks black. It’s never mentioned once, and that’s fine, but it obviously adds to the weight of the scene because David and his friends are all white boys making fun of a black girl in school in suburban America  in what was probably the late-70’s. At no point does the script address any racial undertones, but you definitely feel for little Winnie Hicks, and probably more than you would if she was white. fl-e1506773257424

But that’s why David’s story is actually the most powerful (Ok, I know Nelson’s is pretty powerful, but there just aren’t as many layers there. He killed the kid and the kid wanted revenge.) David represents kids all over the country who probably said and did regrettable things, especially in the days before cyber-bullying (and all bullying, really) became totally forbidden. I don’t know if people thought as much about it back then, but I got made fun of a lot (rightfully so, in some cases. I was a weird kid), and I did my share of making fun of people. I don’t know if I was ragging on kids because I myself got ragged on, so I was lashing back, or what the reason was, but it was pretty bad all around. It was the 80’s. and we all got wailed on, sometimes even by the teachers themselves. And I can’t speak for everyone, but I had a perfectly stable and happy home life, so I have no excuse. I guess we were all making up for inadequacies in some way, but whatever the reason, most of us can identify with either being Winnie Hicks or being David Labraccio. So, sure, when he went to see her, at first it’s just opening up old wounds, but after she thinks about it, she decides, with a tear in her eye, to thank him. Based on the dialogue, it seems like she had some bad memories of school, and the people she dealt with there, whether they were racists or just plain bullies, and him apologizing made her feel just a little bit better about it. If one of my grade school bullies came back and apologized to me, would I have the decency to thank them, or would I still just be angry?

What we have then, is a film about guilt and absolution. Overtly, you could just call it a   horror movie, or a twist on your basic ghost story, even though Winnie Hicks and Joe’s harem are all still alive. But so many ghost stories are about the dead person having “unfinished business” or whatever, and this one isn’t about the ghost’s unfinished business, really. It’s about living people having to deal with things they have done. We have done something that we wish we could take back, and this movie is really about learning to live with that guilt, by dying.

***Quick Note: I know I mentioned earlier that I would get into the missed opportunity of not having Kiefer Sutherland play the same guy but I couldn’t really weave it in, so here goes: I have a weird interest in what happens to characters after the credits roll in movies. In my mind, most of these folks graduated med school and became doctors and probably saw a lot less of each other (And Joe hopefully met a nice girl and treated her right.) But Nelson probably still had a lot of baggage, and if you want to stay in the world of the movie, he was dead for twelve minutes so probably brought a lot of crap back with him. So, even though I never saw the 2017 version, a quick read-through of the plot doesn’t indicate anything that links the two movies together. Either the studio didn’t think anyone would remember the 1990 version, or they thought crap like that had just been done enough times, or maybe it was a creative choice, but whatever the reason, I say it stinks, because it definitely would have added a layer to the movie that probably needed a couple more.

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