PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Tense Tale of 'Black Butterfly' Almost Twists Itself Apart

Imagination and violence collide in this story within a story.

Black Butterfly

Director: Brian Goodman
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Piper Perabo, Antonio Banderas
Rated: R
Studio: Lionsgate Premiere
Year: 2017
US Release Date: 2017-05-26

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.