It is intended simply as an observation, not snarky criticism, to suggest that “90 Minutes in Heaven” might more accurately be titled “Five Months in Purgatory.” Inspired by Baptist minister Don Piper’s bestselling account of his lengthy and arduous recovery from a 1989 auto mishap so serious that he initially was declared dead at the scene, this inspirational indie earns points by being more bluntly realistic than many other faith-based dramas in its depiction of an ordeal that likely would challenge the faith of even the most devout Christians. Piper has testified that he got a glimpse at a warmly inviting afterlife, and actually came tantalizing close to passing through the Pearly Gates, during those long minutes when first responders considered him deceased. But while the movie respectfully accepts Piper’s claim as fact, writer-director Michael Polish (“Big Sur”) wisely refrains from depicting the near-death experience until well into his third act. Instead, he concentrates more on the struggles that can be part of life after a miracle — not unlike Peter Weir’s “Fearless” — and by doing so, fashions a modestly compelling narrative that may attract a crossover audience in theaters and home-screen platforms.
Piper (Hayden Christensen) is introduced as a Texas pastor and loving family man blessed with a beautiful wife (Kate Bosworth), three adorable low-maintenance children, and a burning desire to do the Lord’s will by establishing a new church. But while driving across a two-lane bridge near Huntsville on his way home from a statewide Baptist conference, Piper comes frightfully close to meeting Jesus a lot sooner than he expected: An 18-wheel tractor trailer truck driven by a prison inmate smashes into Piper’s Ford sedan, crushing the vehicle and horribly injuring its driver.
Fortuitously, another minister drives by the accident scene just in time to pray over the apparently dead Piper — and is overjoyed when Piper not only revives, but joins him in a rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Unfortunately, Piper’s ordeal has only just begun. Doctors in Huntsville and, later, a Houston trauma center are hard-pressed to patch up a man so battered and broken that, as one specialist notes, a broken pelvis is considered a low-priority item on the long list of injuries. Even after his condition is more or less stabilized, Piper remains wracked by near-constant pain, beset by bouts of depression (at one point, he stops trying to breathe on his own), and bedeviled by guilt and shame as he feels altogether unworthy of the prayers and attention paid by family and friends.
And, yes, he freely admits: After getting a glimpse of what lies on the other side, he’s decidedly less than eager to face the rigors of recovery. “Survival was going to be difficult,” Piper says in his role as the story’s narrator, “because heaven was so glorious.”
“90 Minutes in Heaven” is most effective as it details the emotional and financial cost of Piper’s survival, dealing with such nitty-gritty details as mounting medical bills, a transfer to another (and presumably lesser) hospital after the insurance company curtails payments, and the bad news delivered by an ambulance-chasing attorney (played, perhaps a shade too flamboyantly, by Dwight Yoakam) who discovers that Texas law drastically limits the amount of any settlement paid to someone in Piper’s situation.
Naturally, the prayers of friends, fellow parishioners and simpatico strangers are not merely thoughtful gestures, but also invaluable resources for Piper and his family. (This is, after all, a faith-based movie.) But it takes a stern tough-love admonishment from an old friend and fellow pastor (played by Fred Dalton Thompson with all the authority he conveyed during his years as a D.A. on TV’s “Law and Order”) before Piper begins to realize that he’s doing the people who care about him a grave disservice by hindering or repulsing their efforts to provide support and encouragement. Yea, verily: When Thompson issues his soft-spoken but straightforward warning — “You really need to get your act together!” — his words have the impact of divine revelation.
Christensen underplays throughout “90 Minutes in Heaven,” even in scenes when Piper isn’t operating under the influence of painkillers, and his earnestness often comes off as monotonous. Still, he generates interest and sympathy, almost in spite of himself, and Bosworth lends capable support as a loyal spouse who works overtime to hide — from everyone but, occasionally, herself — her feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
Production credits are adequate, although anyone familiar with the real-life Houston-area medical facilities referenced here may be amused by the smaller substitute locations employed throughout this filmed-in-Georgia feature.