Imagination and violence collide in this story within a story.
Thrillers featuring writers as the main characters offer filmmakers and viewers the chance to engage with the meanings of the process of writing, while deconstructing the mechanics of genre conventions. When successful, they are surprising, can be darkly funny, and keep the viewer off kilter through unexpected revelations.
In the 1982 film Deathtrap, new bits of information are consistently introduced. Not enough for the viewer to know the characters’ exact motivation, but enough for the audience to shift their loyalties and misunderstand characters’ words and actions. Discussions that seem innocent or pointless are later shown to have different meanings.
Black Butterfly dances through these routines, telling the story of a writer with writer’s block who takes in a drifter. Much like Deathtrap, this movie provides devious narrative pleasure through ambiguous discussions of plot and character by the movie’s protagonists, leaving it intentionally unclear if they are working out a story in the movie or discussing their own motivations. Antonio Banderas is Paul, a successful novelist and unsuccessful screenwriter who is mentally unable to begin his current screenplay and looks for distractions.
Paul is also trying to sell the cabin, where he sits and stares at his typewriter. (Yes, a typewriter.) Whenever Paul’s real estate agent Laura (Piper Perabo) brings potential buyers around to see the isolated property, it gives him another chance to procrastinate. During one of his diversions, he meets Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Jack, a charismatic, mysterious, and self-assured drifter who helps Paul out of a fight with a truck driver at a diner.
The writer and the drifter hit it off and end up back at Paul’s cabin where they begin to form a relationship. Jack quickly inserts himself into Paul’s routine, offering to fix a broken door frame in the cabin and to complete other odd jobs on the property. He also tells Paul that he should write, while Jack works. Each time Paul agrees to one of Jack’s offers, Jack grows bolder and he eventually suggests that he can offer Paul an “everyman” perspective on the work in progress, to help make Paul’s writing more "relatable". This leads to conversations about narrative conventions and character types and the conversations quickly become tense, leading the two men to play psychological games with each other.
To some, this set up may bring to mind Rob Reiner's 1990 thriller, Misery, and it Black Butterfly does share the theme of an off-kilter personality trying to guide a frustrated writer to create better stories. But the tension in Misery comes from the slow realization that the woman who saved the author is a psychotic fan who increasingly demonstrates her power over the subject of her fascination. The thrill is finding out if this increasingly powerless author will escape his captor. In Black Butterfly, however, we suspect both characters as "off-kilter", as the two men vacillate between honestly bonding and establishing dominance, and sometimes doing both at once, all through their conversation about the screenplay. Their discussions of plot tropes and character types become almost metanarrative as they debate about the motivations of the fictional characters in Paul’s screenplay, we see that those same motivations could apply to their own interactions, while their comments about the logic of thrillers could apply to the movie that they are in.
It’s clear during moments such as when the two men share personal stories and then later, as they verbally and physically attack each other, that Paul and Jack share a compelling connection. Brian Goodman directed the two lead actors’ to nuanced performances, making it unclear in many scenes if they are attempting to relate to one another or if they're simply manipulating each other. When Jack castigates Paul for drinking too much, it’s hard to tell if he truly cares to help or if he's just messing with Paul. This uncertainty makes the violent confrontations disorienting for a viewer trying to identify with one character or the other, or attempting to determine which of the two is the most nefarious.
As the men engage in bonding through verbal sparring and increasingly aggressive wrestling, we learn that women in the area are disappearing and that the police are searching for a possible serial killer. This brings other characters into the fray. They visit the cabin and ratchet up the anxiety, so that by the time Laura returns to the cabin unannounced, a showdown is certain. This would not be a thriller without revelations and the film has some good reveals, but the final surprise almost ruins the movie, because it feels like a “twist” for no particular reason.
Marc Frydman and Justin Stanley adapted the story from the 2008 French movie, Papillon Noir, directed by Christian Faure. Frydman and Stanley’s rewrite smartly structures the larger mystery -- of who the characters are and what relation if any they have to the recent disappearances -- around the writing of Paul’s screenplay. Jack’s aggressive motivational stunts and his interest in pushing Paul to write is baffling, funny, and menacing all at once. Even after the violent confrontations begin, the characters return to the subject of the screenplay. In one clever scene, Jack threatens Paul with a knife to show him what a genuine fearful reaction to a knife would be, so that he can make his characters’ reactions in the screenplay more real. It’s in these moments that the movie tightens into a series of tough gambols.
But towards the end, the story loses its dramatic drive -- it’s fluttering around, if you will, such that as a viewer I began to anticipate a final “twist”. Not that I knew what it would be, but it gave me too much time to think that there was probably going to be one, and the last “gotcha!” almost murdered the rest of the movie. It didn’t quite kill the Black Butterfly, but it did shred the wings of an otherwise clever and engaging suspense story.