Butterfly on a Wheel is Too Mixed Bag
By Kristin Battestella
Perfect couple Abby (Maria Bello) and Neil (Gerard Butler) Randall are on their way to a weekend retreat at his boss’ cabin in hopes of a promotion for Neil. Unfortunately, the meticulously calculating Tom (Pierce Brosnan) hijacks their SUV along the way. He has Abby and Neil’s daughter Sophie (Emma Karwandy, The Dead Zone) abducted and insists the only way for the couple to get their daughter back is to do everything he asks for the next 24 hours. From mundane errands to theft, Abby and Neil’s desperations and crimes increase quickly and result in deadly consequences.
Stateside this 2007 family thriller was unimaginatively re-billed Shattered – we get how their world has crumbled, thanks. However, this humdrum, common title is actually more indicative of how basic director Mike Barker (To Kill a King) and writer William Morrissey’s (The Entitled) interwoven plot and stock characters actually are. Spoilers, our happy couple isn’t perfect after all, and Butterfly on a Wheel takes too many stupid misdirections to prove it. This isn’t anything viewers haven’t seen before – we see it a lot, truly – yet the path here grows increasingly preposterous only to bottom out in the end. Yes, that is the point of the original Butterfly on a Wheel name and source, but the viewer has no reason to care why this man is making this couple do these elaborately mundane tasks, and by the end, there might even be a little audience anger or resentment. Oh, was that all? We want the explanations to be bigger than they are. Kidnapping, forced motivations, deception, and betrayal are all certainly relatable topics, yet somehow the terrorizations feel so hollow. Are we not meant to be scared by these real world dangers? The focus on the crazy, calculated randomness cheapens the what could have been complexity here.
Fortunately, producer and ex-James Bond Pierce Brosnan keeps Butterfly on a Wheel mildly interesting. We’re just not used to seeing his suave, often classy, and besuited self so five o’clock shadow and dicey with a slightly scary introduction – one may even initially suspect that Brosnan’s and Gerard Butler’s roles should have been reversed. His full Irish lilt is toned down and Tom’s creepy nature is surprisingly good, but his threats simply aren’t that apparent. More viewers will probably get choked up at his burning of the Randall’s money than when he cuts off phone calls to their kidnapped daughter. We don’t see the child, babysitter, or other accomplices and modes of operation, so the elaborateness of his plan isn’t fully felt. I dare say the child plot points could have been removed, as they are ironically a non-factor instead of the core of Butterfly on a Wheel. Wonderful subtle moments from Brosnan, however, do keep some sinister alive. It’s very disturbing when he lights a cigarette and goes right on talking after he crashes a car as if nothing major had happened. Granted, it’s tough to take Pierce Brosnan as full on, seriously evil, but Tom has nothing to lose, and such desperation can be frightening or strangely understandable today. As Butterfly on a Wheel unfolds, you almost don’t blame him for what he does. Of course, part of his back-story isn’t what it seems or will be obvious to some audiences. Tom’s quest could have been achieved with a lot simpler betrayals, and whatever control he thinks he has, isn’t really about him at all. Butterfly on a Wheel tries to be coy on these secrets, but the back talking script should have been streamlined or left to allow Brosnan free reign on this potentially intriguing turn.
Our sappy couple is also written as so damn perfect that it is sick and obviously too good to be true – not the best foundation to open Butterfly on a Wheel. It feels like Maria Bello did a lot of these scary thriller types ala A History of Violence post ER, and the plain, simple wife role doesn’t suit her. Abby dresses kind of ugly, and of course, her life is meant to be fulfilled by a baby and a photography hobby turned business in typical Hollywood cliché. Yet somehow, little wife Abby almost immediately changes into the tough talking, pants wearing half of our couple once her daughter’s life is at stake. On one hand, this is understandable for any mother, certainly. However, the sudden character change is too unbelievable, and it’s evident that her weapon in this escapade will be something sexual – in this case a striptease. Wise viewers will predict her character arc completely, and once Abby is resorted to her feminine wiles, she sort of disappears from Butterfly on a Wheel before the finale. Ironically, she becomes sympathetic by default in this absence before the over long, soap opera twist and supposedly kicker conclusion undoes the character completely.
Even sans my preferred bearded style, Gerard Butler (300) thankfully looks good with dark hair and a nice accent for Butterfly on a Wheel. Of course, the barely there glasses are meant to show the audience he’s all business without having us loose focus on those beautiful eyes, and Neil is all good looking and he knows it vanity to start. He’s the perfect salesmen and doesn’t sweat the competition until he unexpectedly looses his cool once Tom enters his life. Butterfly on a Wheel opens with so much time spent on establishing the couple as is, and again, the role reversal almost comes too easy. Suddenly Neil is revealing limp fish true colors, completely emasculated, and afraid of heights. If it is this easy to ruin this guy, then all the effort Tom goes thru is really unnecessary, isn’t it? We don’t even know what Neil did to be the focus of Tom’s plan anyway – a smart viewer can suspect, but we don’t care enough about the character thanks to all these switcharoos. There are numerous opportunities for Neil to do something about Tom, but he strangely becomes a stupid, not fully thought out character who falls into too many easy chances. His lack of police help also becomes weak plot points, as does his own love and mixed motivations for his daughter. With all the lies and assholeness littering Butterfly on a Wheel, the audience doesn’t really know what to believe and by the end doesn’t much care so long as Butler is pretty to look at throughout.
Though mostly of television extraction, full potential also isn’t given to the fine supporting cast, including BFF Samantha Ferris (The 4400, who I never realized looks so much like Leah Remini!), competitive co-worker Nicholas Lea (The X-Files), and surprisingly Desiree Zurowski (Charlie St. Cloud) as babysitter Helen. The saucy twists for secretary Claudette Mink (Kingdom Hospital) are expected, but her plots come across as asinine rather than bringing any layering or realism. Her Judy is so nice to Abby’s face, but her reasons for the bitchiness are never realized – ultimately, her revelations just feel cruel and stupid. Most of Butterfly on a Wheel is also too dark to see all the action – by time we get to the final, drag out fight, the audience is tired of the flat, dreary, blue tinted palette and nighttime photography. Some of the physical, intimate violence, however, does look angry and authentic – Gerard Butler has spoken of his ongoing back problems from the crazy car crash scene here. You don’t like hearing about people being injured for a film, but somehow it adds a bit of dimension to Butterfly on a Wheel, a desperation that’s missing in the drama onscreen.
Butterfly on a Wheel could have been a straightforward and taut thriller about four mature adults getting revenge on each other via work, finances, and sex, but instead it fizzles under its own pretentiousness. If none of this actually happens, then is there a point to it all? The audience is the one who suffers the titular roundabout exaggeration more than anyone, as if we’ve been tricked into watching something that pulls the rug out from under us – and not in a good, surprising twist, fun film way, either. It could have been much, much more, yet Butterfly on a Wheel unfulfills on its attempted terror and suspense with predictable stupidity. Precious few intense moments and a bemusing to watch cast almost make up the difference, but not by much.