Bress & McGruber’s THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT [7/10]

Not since the pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves has there been a young Hollywood star who’s had the mickey taken out of him quite so much as Ashton Kutcher. Ever since he started dating Demi Moore, he’s been ridiculed as a himbo toy-boy, a lunk-headed buffoon of what might charitably be described as “limited” acting ability. The many critics who have panned his first solo-lead movie – twisty time-travel thriller The Butterfly Effect – have made some unkind comments about how convincingly Kutcher portrays befuddled, my-brain-hurts confusion on screen… the exact same type of barbs thrown at Reeves when he made the not-dissimilar Johnny Mnemonic.

But whereas Mnemonic is best remembered as a box-office belly-flop, Butterfly soared surprisingly high in the US movie-charts, reaching nationwide number one and remaining on hundreds of screens more than two months after it opened. So much for the (usually quite accurate) predictive powers of Variety magazine’s Todd McCarthy, who sniffed that the film “is poised for a theatrical life span scarcely longer than that of its eponymous insect.”

Just like Reeves – who earned famously astronomical sums from his Wachowski Brothers collaborations – Kutcher has had the financial last laugh. But this isn’t a first for the genial Iowa-native: his earlier comedies Dude, Where’s My Car? and Cheaper By the Dozen (where he’s riotous in a lengthy, unbilled cameo) both dramatically exceeded box-office expectations. And rightly so: both were, despite severe critical drubbings, surprisingly enjoyable romps.

The Butterfly Effect, though dealing with infinitely more serious subject-matter (for starters: baby-murder; child sexual abuse; terminal cancer; limb-loss; prison-rape at the hands of neo-Nazis; incest; prostitution), is also much, much more fun that it really has any right to be. McCarthy was right when he said that the film “grows more ridiculous by the quarter-hour” – but wrong in assuming that this is such a bad thing. In fact, the more preposterous, implausible, absurd and nonsensical The Butterfly Effect becomes, the more entertaining the results.

The basic premise isn’t exactly original: writer-directors Gruber and Bress (who did Final Destination 2) essentially take the by-now-familiar altering-the-past-alters-the-present elements of Back to the Future, Time After Time,Frequency (and the early stretches of The Time Machine) and push them to amusingly wild extremes.The title (also used by a rather less way-out Spanish movie from 1996) refers to the chaos-theory concept by which a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can unknowingly set off a chain of cause and effect, resulting in a typhoon on the other – see the opening scenes of Austrian art-house award-winner Free Radicals for a disarmingly literal visualisation of this idea.

Twenty-year-old Evan Treborn (Kutcher) discovers that, by reading aloud the journals he’s kept since the age of seven, he’s somehow transported back in time, knowing then what he knows now. So of course he alters events to prevent nasty things occurring to himself, his friends, his mother (Melora Walters), his cute pet dog Crockett, and the love of his life, Kayleigh (Amy Smart). Needless to say, complications occur and soon Evan finds himself frantically jumping back and forth in time to avert the disasters and tragedies his time-meddling have inadvertently triggered…

Hats off to Bress, Gruber and editor Peter Amundson for spinning out what is essentially pulpy B-movie material to a theoretically unsustainable 113 minutes. The first, somewhat Stephen King-ish section showing Evan’s troubled childhood is surprisingly lengthy, but creates a viscerally unsettling atmosphere of dread punctuated with some jolting shocks. The contribution of a young performer named Jesse James is crucial to these sequences: as Kayleigh’s brother Tommy, James socks over a characterisation of chillingly believable malevolence and volatility. But Tommy isn’t just a pint-sized figure of evil – the film makes it clear that Tommy’s dysfunction is due to the influence of his paedophile father (Eric Stoltz). Thus misery and horror are passed down from generation to generation.

Likewise, Evan suffers from an unfortunate inheritance: his time-travel ability is somehow genetic, as his institutionalised father Jason (Callum Keith Rennie) knows only too well. The film-makers don’t bother to explain any of this, of course, which is a plus – fussing over considerations of logic would only get in the way of what is an unexpectedly gripping yarn. The pace never lets up as the plot takes increasingly jaw-dropping turns, and the whole thing is played admirably straight by the talent on both sides of the camera. Unlike, say, the rather more ambitious Donnie Darko, the complicated Phil-Dickian time-travel storylines do actually tie together quite well, and the film is never at all hard to keep track of — even for a lunk-headed Hollywood buffoon…

Neil Young
2nd April, 2004
(seen same day : Vue [formerly Warner Village], Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

The Butterfly Effect : USA 2004 : Eric Bress & J. Mackye Gruber : 113m : [7/10]