While thrillers are not generally my favorite kind of film, there are a number of very well-made and entertaining entries in the genre. Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) come to mind, albeit for different reasons. Oldboy pushed what is considered acceptable in mainstream cinema, especially in terms of violence, to the extreme, while Black Swan managed to integrate surreal psychological manifestations into an otherwise believable and engaging story. Not every thriller can be revolutionary though. There are some that merely exist to entertain and thrill us, for lack of a better term. Much like in horror films, there is an established set of “rules” to accomplish this, with room for variation on the basic formula. Essentially, for a thriller to function as it is intended, there must be an element of risk, with the final outcome of events suspended to create anxiety and/or excitement. Films that are not generally considered to be thrillers in the strictest sense can still use this formula, but there are no thrillers I’m aware of that can exist without it.
Despite the apparent rigidity of the genre, there are plenty of subgenres and variations, but this doesn’t change the fact that one generally knows what to expect when entering the theater. For better or worse, a lot of filmmakers mistake a lack of originality with a necessary adherence to genre requirements. This is certainly not the case. If it were, there would never be a genre film that garnered any sort of acclaim. In Mike Barker’s Butterfly on a Wheel (released as Shattered in the US and Desperate Hours in Europe), we are provided with a prime example of lazy storytelling and an over reliance on formulaic genre cliches, at the expense of any and all originality.
What exists of the film’s appeal lies mostly in its plot twists, so I will not give away anything that couldn’t be surmised from watching a trailer. Happy couple, Neil (Gerard Butler) and Abby (Maria Bello) live a seemingly perfect life with their young daughter, Sophie. When a brutal and calculating man named Tom Ryan (Pierce Brosnan) kidnaps Sophie, they must do whatever he asks of them to ensure their daughter’s safe return. As Tom’s demands become increasingly dangerous to their wellbeing, the couple must decide if they should fight back or allow this sociopath to bring their lives crashing down.
I will start with the positives, as they are few and far between. If one is willing to turn their brain off and ignore the glaring issues, Butterfly on a Wheel has the capacity to be entertaining. It also features some decent, but nonetheless predictable plot twists. The photography is exactly what one would expect from a modern thriller, with an abundance of dreary gray and blue filters over just about every scene. The premise, while not altogether new, is still intriguing and works to ratchet up the emotion.
However, as is the case with similar films, in which a villain (or even a hero) sets up a needlessly intricate and long-running plan with which to trap and/or torture someone, it devolves into absurdity. Each new gauntlet that Neil and Abby must work through is less believable than the last, and one is constantly wondering how any of it could be possible in reality. Of course, we are expected to suspend our disbelief, but Butterfly on a Wheel asks too much of its audience in this regard.
In addition to the implausibility of it all, the film also suffers from overly emotional performances and poor writing. None of the dialogue sounds remotely natural, and each of the three principle actors seem as if they are merely phoning it in for this one. If all that weren’t bad enough, there is something about the film that exudes an unwarranted level of hubris, as if the extreme principles inherent in the plot are well-established and above scrutiny; family is more important than literally anything in existence, infidelity is the worst crime anyone can commit, people are either completely virtuous or amoral sociopaths, and so on. Nothing about this film is remotely believable, and it is nearly unwatchable as a result.
Rating: ★½ out of 5
In case you are still interested in watching it, Butterfly on a Wheel is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.