Every so often we all seem to move away from the usual nothings we talk about amongst our friends, and instead get into a deeply philosophical conversation about the workings of Chaos Theory and the existence of parallel universes. No? Okay, just me then. In any case, this discussion just the other day led to a friend recommending The Butterfly Effect, a film that puts both a stylistic and sinister spin on the idea that even the mere flapping of a butterfly's wings can result in drastic changes in another place or time. Being initially sceptical because of the generally negative reaction from critics, I was certainly not disappointed by film's end.
Ashton Kutcher couldn't be more different that his concurrent role as the dimwitted Kelso from That '70s Show in his lead performance as Evan Treborn, a man who has suffered blackouts since his childhood, and realises that he can access and relive vital gaps in his memory through the help of other sources like journals or images. He uses this skill to, in his eyes, right the wrongs of the past. Namely, injustices that were performed upon his friends Lenny and Tommy and only love Kayleigh (Amy Smart). What he doesn't realise is that the changes he thinks are made for the better actually result in a severely changed future that threatens his own life.
Without trying to sound like a sadist, The Butterfly Effect excels in presenting a consistently dark, melancholy atmosphere. Indeed, there is hardly a happy moment in the entire film, although that may be untrue depending on which ending you watch (more on that later). Any event that looks as if it might provide a slim ray of hope for Evan to make things right is quickly dashed by a sudden escalation of the plot, maintaining the viewer's interest the whole way through. The film doesn't shy away from heavy subject matter either, including prostitution, murder, paedophilia and drug use, all of which culminates in an enjoyably gritty, underground tone.
Positively, the menacing nature of the movie isn't weighed down by comic relief. I suppose when many of us think of this sort of plot, we first think of the Simpsons Halloween special when Homer invents the time-travelling toaster. Not knowing quite how dark the film would turn out to be, I was concerned The Butterfly Effect would go down a similar path, in which Evan keeps returning to the present to find that all humans have grown wings or Pauly D has become President. Instead, any changes are limited to the persona of the characters, rather than altering the physical environment, which was definitely the professional path to take.
The pacing is another strength. For a film that comes in well under two hours, directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber deserve credit for packing a lot in, and doing it well. Certainly, some thrillers benefit from slow-moving scenes to draw suspense (the superb Eyes Wide Shut, for example) but Butterfly manages to combine compounding urgency with engaging character development in constructing a fast-moving film that requires both thought and stamina to decipher, without being needlessly confusing.
Oddly, the film possesses four different final scenes, and so the lasting message of the movie may differ depending on the copy viewed. My favourite ending is the 'official' one applied to the theatrical release. It is satisfying, yet open-ended, as is the case with its alternate cut. Another is uncharacteristically upbeat and illogical, perhaps suggested in the editing room as a way of appeasing confused screen-test viewers. But if you really want to get down to brass tax, go with the Director's Cut: a far more morbid conclusion with a surreal twist. Intrigued? Don't let me stop you.
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