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The writing process is often explored in film and theater in metaphorical terms, seen in themes of great hurdles and sometimes harrowing imagery of psychological trauma. Writers face their inner demons as they sometimes lay at the monstrous feet of a creative block and from black comedies such as Throw Mamma From The Train and Barton Fink to twisted chillers like Secret Window, prove themselves a source for some endlessly compelling stories.
With Black Butterfly, that process is defined by madness in a decidedly twisted thriller that taps into some deeper concerns of the what it means to be a writer on the edge of falling into the void. It follows once successful author Paul (Antonio Banderas), living in an expensive but rustic mountain home a few hours outside of Denver. He sits in frustration, unable to get started on his latest book, taping out “I’m stuck” over and over on the first page with his typewriter. We find out he’s got no money and no prospects and is desperate to sell his house, pressuring real estate agent Laura (Piper Perabo) to find a buyer, though she’s having no luck. When he meets a drifter named Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in a diner, who saves him from an altercation, he invites him to stay, and soon enough, Jack takes to the lifestyle. He then becomes part of Paul’s creative process, something that proves deadly serious when perspective are crossed and Paul learns more then he expects as they battle for control of the story and much, much more.
Directed by Brian Goodman, Black Butterfly is game of sorts with two players trapped by the confines of rules seemingly made up on the fly as they engage in an escalating conflict that draws in victims from all sides. Polar opposites in many ways, we learn that Paul is divorced, slowly succumbing to drink, and has mostly let himself go. Jack is fresh out of prison, clean cut and in excellent shape, a tinge of violence about him that wafts around him like a lingering mist. On the surface, these are textbook characters though Goodman, and writers Marc Frydman and Justin Stanley dig deep and in the long set up, toy with our expectations and interpretations.
We are suspect of Jack from the start, fusing himself into Paul’s world, taking on an odd domestic role so that by the time he asks to read Paul’s latest rejected draft, there is already a sense that things aren’t right. Naturally, a terrible storm isolates the men even further before it all slips into chaos as bodies are unearthed though there is a lingering doubt about the authenticity of everything we see, created partially by an opening sequence that eludes to something or someone we are meant to guess at. All three leads are very well cast with Banderas especially good, a little puffy, vulnerable and off-kilter, giving a terrific turn in a challenging film that tasks us with a considerable number of questions to answer, most on our own.
The take-away will be debated, the underlining theme of art versus audience one that most likely will be lost in the reveal of the final act and even more so in the last shot, one that some might see as a cheat, and indeed, strips much of the preceding events of their impact if accepted as such. A film more about the meaning than the aftermath, Black Butterfly will find followers in those it caters specifically too, though fans of a good mystery will certainly find rewards even if its ending misses the mark.