‘The Bucket List’ Redefines and Revolutionizes the Use of Flashback

The Bucket List” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman is a stellar film. Sure, it’s about death, dying and cancer, but the film portrays in such a way that its inspirational rather than depressing. Even better is the film’s game changing use of cinematic devices that are usually reserved for poor writing and boring narratives. If you haven’t seen “The Bucket List,” go find it on Netflix or wherever you stream your movies on and get treated to an amazing performance from to old guys that have great chemistry. Spoilers after the trailer.

I hate flashbacks and dislike voice over narration almost as much. So, when Morgan Freeman’s voice begins the film telling us that Jack Nicholson’s character is dead, I was ready for this to be one of the worst films ever. I mean, sure, aside from the premise that these two old guys have terminal cancer, there’s no reason to start the film off showing us the ending. A story should be told from the beginning… except when knowing the ending serves a storytelling purpose.

Generally, poor writing starts off by showing the most intriguing situation possible: a bomb explodes, a character is in the middle of a martial arts battle, the aliens are invading and a laser is bearing down on Earth from the sky, some traumatic event that will grab your interest. Then the film or story rewinds to show you how it got there. If a story has to start in the middle or with an event to engage the viewer’s interest, it’s usually a sign that the actual beginning of the story isn’t good enough to keep the viewer engaged. If it isn’t good enough to start the movie with, it should be left on the cutting room floor. If you can’t trust your viewers or your characters to find their way to the “exciting” parts, then you need to rewrite the story until you can – or drop it altogether.

Flashbacks generally create an entire time period during the story where no danger to the characters involved matter because they are going to make it to the traumatic event. That squashes the tension and results in too much redundancy in the film. “Arrow” has used flashback effectively to enhance its storytelling, and strengthen its themes, but it has 22 hours in which to tell its stories. A 90-minute film should avoid the flashback almost every time.

However, the flashback angle works in “The Bucket List” because of the way it’s used. With Morgan Freeman’s first words, the viewer hears that Edward is dead. The scene shows a man in a cold weather suit climbing on top of the Himalayas with a can of ashes. Because we know that Edward is going to die, we gain sympathy for the cantankerous old man before we ever meet him. We are softened towards him as a person; it’s hard to be angry at someone who is going to die. We also know that his death is coming, so we are able to protect ourselves from it.

The next 88 minutes are filled with laughter, great characters, hardship, and fun. They are heart-rending but not heart-breaking. And then you get the twist at the end. Yes, the film was a flashback, but not in the way the viewer was led to believe. The twist is beautiful and amazing, and for this film, it is part of the reason why the story was so effective. As writer, it’s important to remember that the flashback can be an effective tool as long as we don’t use it lazily. It’s only one of the lessons in “The Bucket List.”