The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Playing with wish-fulfilment and time travel, this parallels some of the mind-twisting effects of Donnie Darko but also apes the you-can't-win structure of Bedazzled. A long prologue establishes that Evan Treborn (Logan Lerman, John Patrick Amedori) is plagued throughout his childhood by blackouts which obliterate traumatic slices from his memory, not to mention a multiply complicated involvement with the mixed-up family next door. Afraid that the kid is going the same way as his institutionalised father, his mother Andrea (Melora Walters) encourages him to fix his memories by writing detailed journals. As a twenty-year-old student, Evan (Ashton Kutcher) realises that by concentrating on his journals he can project his consciousness back into his younger self during the periods of his blackouts and rearrange entire timelines. First, he warns off paedophile George Miller (Eric Stoltz) only to discover that in the continuum created by this alteration he isn't a brilliant but misfit psychology student but a slacker fratboy getting through school on test cheats and Miller's daughter Kayleigh (Amy Smart) isn't a neurotic waitress living with bad memories but a bubbly sorority sister and his longtime girlfriend. However, in this timeline, his girlfriend's brother Tommy (William Lee Scott) received all the abuse Evan formerly suffered and is a violent stalker – and Evan winds up in prison for killing the boy in self-defence, hoping to work the trick with his journals again before he becomes a sex toy for the Aryan Brothers. Going back again and again, triggering brain injuries by cramming more memories into his skull than will fit, Evan makes things worse (turning Kayleigh into a hooker and another friend into a mental patient) until one crucial intervention forces most of the characters into a happy life but leaves him without arms and his mother a dying cancer patient. A Twilight Zone episode might have found this a satisfying ending, with Evan abandoning the time-tinkering after doing good for others at great cost to himself, but this being a modern Hollywood movie, there's another go-round to set things right (a la Groundhog Day), albeit in a way that breaks all possibility of Evan being with the girl he loves.

Hindered by the awkwardness of its initial exposition and a time travel device given a lot of weight early on but abandoned when an alternative is found as a get-out clause for a timeline where there are no journals, this works best when it's at its simplest, demonstrating the lingering effects of various childhood traumas and playing with subtleties like the way that in the apparently happiest timeline the hero and the heroine are somehow smugger and less likeable than in threads where things don't work out for them. Kutcher, a player who has a hard time being taken seriously, does fine work for the most part, though the intricate and clever script keeps sticking him with awkward expository lines. The problem is that given a premise with infinite possibilities, The Butterfly Effect has to keep finding ways of limiting the vision to a typical contemporary set of concerns – child abuse, bad parenting, teenage irresponsibility, the threat of sexual violence. Directed and written by J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress.

First published in this form here.

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