The Butterfly Effect (2004)

17 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There is a chaos theory that even the smallest thing, such as a butterfly’s wing fluttering, can cause disarray. That theory is quoted at the opening of “The Butterfly Effect,” a weird and disturbing film that intrigued me with interest and weird plot elements that are as strange as “Donnie Darko.” (And I mean that as a compliment.)

“The Butterfly Effect” is a thriller right from the start. As the movie opens, a man runs into a room and writes a message saying that he may be dead if anybody finds it, but he can “save her” if he can “go back to the beginning.” Then the movie flashes back to thirteen years earlier, to that man’s childhood at age 7.

The kid’s name is Evan Treborn and there is something very strange going on. He blacks out certain memories that may have been horrible. He doesn’t know why he holds a large knife at one point, he doesn’t know why his clothes are off in the basement of his friend’s father’s house, and he doesn’t know why his institutionalized father tried to strangle him on his visit. The thrilling aspect of this opening is that we don’t know why, either. We just have to wait and see…

Then the film flashes forward six years later. Evan is thirteen years old and has a crush on his friend Kayleigh, whose father is an abusive pervert and whose brother Tommy is a sadistic little snot. Evan has more blackouts this time—he doesn’t know why his friend Lenny went into shock after they, Kayleigh, and Tommy tried to blow up a mailbox with a blockbuster; and he doesn’t know why Tommy acts up whenever he’s asked about what happened that time. But he has another thing to worry about when he and Kayleigh really become close with each other, which leads Tommy to violence.

Then, the movie pushes forward seven years later. Evan is now a college student (and played by Ashton Kutcher) and hasn’t had any blackouts since he was thirteen. But something strange happens when he reads the journals he kept since his first blackout. He discovers that by reading the journals, he can experience the memories that he blacked out. But soon, he also discovers that he can change the way things turn out. When Kayleigh (Amy Smart), who has grown depressed, commits suicide, Evan decides to go back and change things to prevent that from happening.

But every time Evan tries to go back and fix things, he ends up making them worse—when he first changes things, he and Kayleigh are happily together, but he ends up killing vengeful Tommy (William Lee Scott) and going to prison; then he changes things and ends up making Lenny (Elden Henson) a murderer and Kayleigh a hooker; and he even brings a remarkably drastic change to himself after a disastrous alteration.

The gimmick here is that Evan can read the journals and go back to those memories, change things, and go back to the present where things have changed. But is it always a parallel present? Is it an alternate universe? “The Butterfly Effect” doesn’t fully explain how that works, but I guess we’re supposed to figure it out ourselves. That’s what makes it so interesting. This is a compelling and intriguing thriller—as good as “Donnie Darko” and way better than “Final Destination 2,” which have similar elements (also, “FD2” was written by the writers of this one).

Ashton Kutcher—whom I still haven’t forgiven for “Dude, Where’s my Car?”—isn’t who I would’ve picked for the lead character. He’s been just plain goofy in everything else he’s in and the question is, “Can this guy really take on a serious role?” Well, yes, he can. Kutcher is very good in this movie. We believe him when he goes through this weirdness, and he just plays the character as just a confused college student, which is very refreshing. Amy Smart gives a good performance as Kayleigh, who goes through a lot of personalities in these different parallel worlds while Evan stays the same. First, she’s a nice waitress, then she’s a sorority chick, then she’s a dirty hooker, and she also shares a scene with Evan near the end of the film where she shares how she really felt about Evan when they were younger kids and things can be different.

The ending is most upsetting, but I won’t give it away.

“The Butterfly Effect” works on the level of making us question the consequences for own actions. With its weird and intriguing plot, its good performances, and its grim look, “The Butterfly Effect” is a very good thriller that is effective and holds our interest.

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