Today, I’m continuing my tour through a handful of the cinematic failures of 2017 with Black Butterfly, starring Antonio Banderas.
The plot of Black Butterfly is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Outside a mountain town grappling with a series of abductions and murders, Paul (Antonio Banderas), a reclusive writer, struggles to start what he hopes will be a career-saving screenplay. After a tense encounter at a diner with a drifter named Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Paul offers Jack a place to stay-and soon the edgy, demanding Jack muscles his way into Paul’s work and the two men begin a jagged game of one-upmanship that will bring at least one tale to an end.
As mentioned in the above synopsis, the minimal cast of Black Butterfly is headlined by Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Four Rooms, The Mask of Zorro, Spy Kids, The 13th Warrior) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Vikings, The Tudors, Mission Impossible III).
Black Butterfly is, notably, a remake of a 2008 French made-for-television movie called Papillon Noir. The screenplay for this American version was written by Marc Frydman, one of the film’s producers, and Justin Stanley, who had penned a handful of little-seen movies like Beneath Loch Ness, Dusting Cliff 7, and The Shadow Men.
Black Butterfly is the second film by director Brian Goodman, who has spent most of his career as a minor actor in television shows like Aquarius, Chance, Castle, Lost, and 24. His first film was 2008’s What Doesn’t Kill You, which received generally positive to mixed reviews.
The cinematographer for Black Butterfly was José David Montero, whose other credits include Apollo 18, What Happened to Monday?, The Hunter’s Prayer, and Open Grave.
The music for the film was composed by Federico Jusid, who provided scores for films like Neruda, The Hunter’s Prayer, Kidnap, Misconduct, and The Secret In Their Eyes, among others.
The production history for Black Butterfly traces back to 2012, when Nicolas Cage was reportedly set to star. However, as the production delayed, many changes occurred between the film’s conception and release.
Culturally, the image of a black butterfly is widely considered a bad omen. They are not only uncommon, but visually evocative of death and mourning due to their dark coloration. Depending on the mythology and culture, they can represent the souls of the dead, the end of a season, or a coming disaster.
The film features a cameo role by prolific exploitation director Abel Ferrara, who directed movies like King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, Body Snatchers, and The Driller Killer, among others.
Black Butterfly was released in May of 2017 to generally negative reviews. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 50% from critics and 45% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 6.1/10. I suspect that the film released solely on video on demand services, given that no theatrical or financial information is readily available for it.
Black Butterfly boasts two very good performances from its leads: Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. For most of the movie, the onus of holding the story together is placed entirely on their shoulders, due to a generally lackluster screenplay. Both men manage to turn dialogue that could have easily sounded cringe-inducing into something mildly compelling and suspenseful – at least to a point. Both actors, who have proven themselves capable in the past, are better than this movie, and put in serious effort to elevate it. For all of Black Butterfly‘s faults, the cast is certainly not one of them.
Something that has been noted by many critics is that Black Butterfly feels familiar for audiences acquainted with the thriller genre: movies like Misery or Secret Window immediately come to mind from the synopsis alone. However, what is interesting about Black Butterfly is how it both subverts those genre expectations, as well as plays directly into tired cliches. Typically, a movie either cleverly goes down the first path, or trudges down the second: Black Butterfly straddles both paths, making for a simultaneously confusing, captivating, and frustrating experience. This is further emphasized by the screenplay’s tone, which is developed through a combination of predictable cliched lines, smug insights into the “writing process,” and non sequiturs masquerading as sapience. In the words of Vikrim Murthi of RogerEbert.com:
“Black Butterfly” communicates all of its empty-headed ideas idiotically, but still retains a knowing smugness regarding its intentions, like it’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat while acting like no one’s ever seen such a trick.
By far the defining element of Black Butterfly, for better or for worse, is its cavalcade of twists. Bafflingly, even the marketing for the film relied on its twists, with the poster sporting the tagline of “A Killer Story With A Twist.” Not only does that marketing spoil the fact that there is a twist, but an audience that had seen the poster would spend the whole movie searching for the twist, which would effectively ruin the viewing experience. In any case, whether spoiled by marketing or not, the twists are a net negative when taken together: despite one debatably good one, it is more than cancelled out by a final bad twist at the conclusion, which undoes all of the previous developments of the film. The rapid twists abruptly shifting from cliche, to novel, to cliche again would give any viewer severe whiplash, and make the movie all the more tiresome.
On a technical level, there is some suspect camera work peppered throughout the film, which is likely a result of what I assume was a low budget. A number of shots and angles seem like they were filmed on cell phones awkwardly placed on tripods. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are moments where it is a bit jarring, and it is clear that camera limitations are preventing some necessary coverage. On a positive note, however, the locations are absolutely gorgeous, and provide a stunning backdrop for the story: it is hard for any given shot to not look scenic as a result.
Overall, Black Butterfly is an exemplar of how twists (and an unpolished screenplay) can hurt a film. To be honest, it is not one of the worst movies of 2017, and it was right on the cusp of making my list for the month. However, it is a more interesting failure to cover than something like The Emoji Movie, which was doomed from conception. Black Butterfly squanders real potential, sees a sharp decline in quality internally due to the degrading twists, and is a surreal juxtaposition of positive and negative elements.
As far as a recommendation goes, it is hard for me to say whether this is worth the time. The performances, as mentioned, are good and worth seeing. While the screenplay is tiresome, I think the twists would be interesting for film buffs to both praise and critique. Casual viewers would likely be less interested in this one, and should probably avoid it.