Movie Review: “Black Butterfly,” with Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Rhys Meyers
There have been genre casualties in our increasingly superhero-saturated cinematic landscape: the slice-of-life teen offering; the romantic comedy; and the adult thriller have all been pushed aside. Every blockbuster costs a bajillion dollars and has to make two bajillion to be successful, which is why smaller films like Everything, Everything and Get Out feel so refreshing. They’re actually different from what we’ve seen before. Think of a movie like Saban’s Power Rangers: the teen-centered stuff was insightful and emotional; everything with Rita Repulsa, the CGI and the big action set pieces, was boring. We need more of the former and less of the latter. We are craving something else.
Into that “Oh hey, something finally new!” feeling of relief arrives Black Butterfly, a drama that Lionsgate is marketing as a “psychological thriller.” It has flaws—the ending is, honestly, rage-inducing—but at least it’s trying something. Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Rhys Meyers lean into the film’s intimate premise and ratchet up the tension and anxiety quite well; this is an ideal VOD offering that relies more on twisty plotting and layered dialogue than bombast. Up until the conclusion, it will reel you in.
Black Butterfly focuses on Paul (Banderas, of The 33), a writer living on a secluded property outside of Denver. His beautiful home is falling into disrepair, littered with liquor bottles and trash. He doesn’t have any cash flow to pay for his groceries. His wife has left him, he’s not selling any work, and everything that once seemed so promising in his life has become total shit. Paul is the kind of man who is polite in one moment and then filled with anger the next, the kind of person used to getting what he wants and unable to understand why he’s not anymore.
Into his orbit enters Jack (Rhys Meyers, of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), who intervenes on Paul’s behalf at a local diner, defending Paul from a man he had previously screwed over; only a few words from the rangy, edgy, intensely eyed Jack scare away the man. Paul offers Jack a ride and a place to stay for a few days, and almost immediately the drifter seems to take over parts of Paul’s life. He goes swimming in the pond on the property that Paul ignores. He starts fixing up the house, breaking out Paul’s tools and poking around his shed. And he starts needling Paul about his failing writing career and his persistent drinking, in one breath criticizing him (“We’re all free men, we choose what we want. You did this to yourself”) and in another offering to help edit his work (“I’ll give you the opinion of the common man”).
What is Jack’s endgame? When the two enter into an agreement that Jack will help Paul get his act together, elevating his writing to a fraction of the success he previously enjoyed, what they actually start wrestling over is the “story” of their lives. In a “story” version of their reality, would Paul the writer really offer Jack the drifter a place to say? Would Jack the drifter believably pull a gun on Paul the writer? Would Paul’s will be strong enough to survive Jack, or would Jack overwhelm Paul with his grasp of the unexpected (like putting a knife to Paul’s throat while he sleeps) and his brusque truths about Paul’s shortcomings?
For the most part, Black Butterfly zigs and zags nicely. Banderas adds depth to what could be a generic washed-up drunk, and he has flashes of menace that are unexpected and welcome in his depiction of Paul. Rhys Meyers, meanwhile, goes hard into the on-edge persona he’s cultivated over the years, and while his American accent is completely dreadful, his physicality and his unwavering eye commitment make for a believably creepy performance. And when the film begins unraveling what you thought you saw vs. what may have actually happened, it lives up to the thriller label. It’s not as strong as other recent genre offerings like Prisoners or Secret in Their Eyes, but the testosterone-fueled competition between Jack and Paul is done well enough.
At least, it’s done well enough until the very end. The final few moments of this film are truly infuriating, undermining all the thought-provoking meta developments of the preceding 90 minutes. Black Butterfly was a solid genre offering until the last few seconds, which plummet its quality and throw into question everything you just watched. Why director Brian Goodman and screenwriters Justin Stanley and Marc Frydman made that choice is impossible to understand. (Is it a tongue-in-cheek mirroring of Paul’s own strange choices? Eh.) Black Butterfly had a good thing going otherwise, a welcome break from the barrage of summer blockbusters that entertainingly toyed with your preconceptions before pissing you off.