Our lives form a skein of action and reaction, cause and effect. By the time we can see the shape our intertwined deeds have taken, it’s often too late for change. Leaving God out of the picture, all we can do is keep adding days, hoping to cover the bad areas and accentuate the good. But suppose it wasn’t like that; suppose you could shift, ever so slightly, the most foundational moments of your early life. What would happen?
Evan has fugues, mysterious blackouts during which he behaves normally but after he can’t remember anything. During the most stressful moments of his life his consciousness blinks out like a bad bulb. His father experienced the same thing before going irreparably insane and being committed to an institution. Though doctors claim Evan hasn’t inherited his father’s lunacy, they urge him to begin keeping journals which might jog his memory. Evan never really reads what he has written, which is no surprise, given what some of those entries contain. He and Kayleigh, his life-long love, being molested by her father, for example. Or Kayleigh’s brother, Tommy, burning a pet dog alive. Or his friend, Lenny, being reduced to a shambling shell after a senseless prank took the life of a newborn child.
One day, though, a college-age Evan decides to cracks the cover of his journals and the inexplicable happens: He is bodily transported into those repressed memories and learns that he can alter them at will.
His discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. Emotionally distraught over her molestation, Kayleigh commits suicide. Travelling back to the day of the incident, Evan heads off the incident. But when he awakens, he learns his tinkering with the past has radically impacted the present. No longer an emotionally sterile wreck, Kayleigh has blossomed into a vibrant, utterly gorgeous woman who can’t wait to marry him. Evan himself has become a dashingly handsome fraternity prep. Tommy, though, has transformed into a homicidal maniac who is extremely possessive of his sister and in one startlingly violent moment, Evan’s idyllic world shatters.
He knows what he has to do—go back again. But each tug at the skein changes those Evan loves more than he could have imagined.
Evan’s yearning to have his dad involved in his life testifies to the importance of a father’s role. His constant trips through time are motivated by unadulterated, sacrificial love for Kayleigh and a desire to provide a good life for her. “No one could possibly love anyone as much as I love you,” he tells her, and his actions largely back up the statement.
Additionally, Evan wisely urges Tommy’s dad to discipline him in order to curb the boy’s violent proclivities. A Christian jailbird shares his food with an incarcerated Evan after he has been harassed by gang members.
During a funeral a priest intones, “The Lord make His face to shine upon him and give him peace.” A pious penitentiary inmate tells Evan that “Jesus Himself couldn’t make me stand up to the [Aryan] Brotherhood.” That changes when Evan tells him God has been speaking to him through dreams and then travels back in time to inflict stigmata-like wounds on his hands. When Evan visits his father in the past, his dad says, “You can’t play God, son.” Tommy becomes a kind Christian during one alternate reality.
Kayleigh’s father forces the prepubescent Evan and Kayleigh to strip for his camera. Though the directors judiciously avoid explicit nudity, the scene is still nausea-inducing. It doesn’t help that it’s repeated multiple times with an adult Evan travelling back to try to correct the heinous sin.
It always seems that Evan is walking in on his roommates tossing the sheets with their squeezes, often accompanied by orgasmic moaning and partial breast nudity. A man gropes Kayleigh when she is working at a diner. Women in skimpy lingerie prance around a sorority and one girl steps out of a shower clad in nothing but water (full-frontal nudity is seen onscreen). A post-coital shot has Evan and Kayleigh lying in bed discussing multiple orgasms. Evan offers to perform fellatio on two Aryan prisoners before stabbing one in the crotch with gory results. Kayleigh becomes a prostitute in one potential world, and makes crude comments about promiscuity and female arousal.
When a woman finds Evan’s journals hidden beneath his bunk, she quips, “Most guys keep porn under their beds.” Pornographic magazines make a couple of appearances, but without revealing their prurient contents. The same can’t be said for the many indiscreet posters that adorn college dorm rooms. There are crude and vulgar jokes and slang.
Very explicit, agonizingly brutal and usually bloody. And Evan’s habit of flitting back and forth between the present and the past insures that some scenes appear more than once. Evan’s dad tries to strangle him and is accidentally killed during a scuffle with asylum guards (a blow shatters his skull, which bleeds out over the floor). While under hypnosis, Evan violently writhes and bleeds profusely from his nose. In fact, that occurs every time Evan returns from the past as his brain rapidly grows, accommodating itself to a host of new memories.
A young Kayleigh alludes to the fact that her father beats her and flashes an ugly bruise on her arm. Young Tommy shoves Evan and attacks a man at a movie theater. A truly horrible moment comes when Tommy pummels Evan and Kayleigh with a plank as they try to stop him from immolating a live dog bound in a bag. A man threatens boisterous frat boys at a bar with a broken pool cue. A stunt involving a stick of dynamite stuck in a mailbox claims the life of an infant when his mother attempts to retrieve her mail. A replaying of variants of that instant includes images of a young boy’s arms blowing off and Kayleigh being killed.
Evan beats Tommy to death with a blunt object in one reality. Lenny stabs him with sharp scrap metal in another. Prisoners roughly seize Evan by the genitals before beating him to the ground. A young Evan impales his hands on wire spindles. A sanguine drawing shows a knife murderer standing over his butchered victims.
Over 50 uses of the f-word. Other profanities and crudities raise the count above 100. What makes those obscenities all the more problematic is the fact that many of them are voiced by children. Jesus’ name is abused about four times and God’s over 15 times. Crude racial slang targets African Americans, Hispanics and Jews.
Kayleigh’s dad swallows liquor. Evan’s college roommate takes hits off a bong. Patrons sip brews at a bar. Tommy, Lenny, Kayleigh and Evan smoke cigarettes when they’re teenagers, and that experience with tobacco carries into Kayleigh’s adult life. “I’ve quit like a hundred times,” she tells Evan while puffing away. When Evan tries to explain his time travelling experiences to a co-ed, she thinks he’s stoked on drugs. Kayleigh becomes a heroin addict during one of Evan’s trips.
Evan steals a keycard to gain access to restricted areas of a mental institution. One very disturbing scene features a crippled man trying to drown himself in a bathtub.
In 1993, Jurassic Park introduced moviegoers to a scientific hypothesis called “Chaos Theory.” The Butterfly Effect takes that idea—that seemingly inconsequential actions can have huge, unforeseen effects—and makes it its narrative backbone. Not content to stop there, co-directors and screenwriters Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber spliced in wildly disparate plot elements. Imagine combining the psychic bewitchery of Stephen King’s Firestarter with Dennis Lehane’s delusional mind-trip Shutter Island and the classic 1952 time-travel story “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury.
You might not think that a movie with so many, well, unique influences could actually work on a story level. And, indeed, The Butterfly Effect does have some holes—huge ones, in fact—but it’s kept moving fast enough and cleverly enough that most audiences won’t notice until they’re well out of the theater.
What you can’t help noticing is this R-rated feature’s content. And there it fails miserably. The brutality in Evan’s life and adventures is stupefyingly vicious. (It’s only somewhat more understandable when you realize the film’s creators penned the pornographically violent Final Destination 2.) I sincerely wish Bress and Gruber had thought through the “butterfly effect” of young viewers absorbing their ruthless vision as much as they tried to process each of the film’s many twists and turns.