Thursday June 6, 1996
Although we hardly need any more movies about serial killers, "Butterfly Kiss" accomplishes what few such films do, and that is to make a multiple murderer seem like a member of the human race.
Yet, so ferocious are the killings bluntly depicted in this film that it is entirely understandable why it provokes walkouts--about a quarter to a third of its preview audience did just that--or why you would not wish to submit yourself to this picture in the first place.
Even so, "Butterfly Kiss," which was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Michael Winterbottom, is a taut work of rigor and complexity, laced with flashes of pitch-dark humor. It builds to a powerful surprise ending and is sustained by the galvanic portrayals of Amanda Plummer and Saskia Reeves. It's a kind of harsh, low-budget distaff companion piece to "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and remote from the glossy Hollywood suspense thrillers featuring savage serial slayings.
Plummer has made a career of playing women who go over the edge but never in so major and dominating a role. Her Eunice is a scruffy, clearly deranged young woman who drifts from one service station to another along a northern England freeway. If the station's convenience store cashier happens to be a woman, Eunice asks her emphatically, "Are you Judith?" and hums a tune, hoping the woman will recognize it and have it on a cassette in stock. Negative answers can result in the cashier's being bashed to death. Eunice says that Judith is her missing lover but perhaps she's that side of Eunice's personality that's been overcome by madness.
When Eunice encounters Reeves' pleasant, ordinary-looking Miriam behind a cash register, it doesn't matter that she's not Judith. Since Miriam's life is limited to her workplace and her nearby apartment, where she lives with her disabled and senile mother, she is dazzled by this renegade, so mercurial as to move back and forth in an instant between hysterical rage and bold displays of passion.
These two women pay attention to each other, and that's enough to generate love at first sight on the part of Miriam, who swiftly ends up joining Eunice on her increasingly bloody odyssey.
Eunice and Miriam are, on the surface, totally different women. The man-hating Eunice is consumed with rage, driven crazy by some terrible, never-disclosed life experience. Yet it is the heavily tattooed, chain-encrusted Eunice who possesses moral imagination, who can discern between good and evil, whereas Miriam gradually emerges as being no more than sweetly, even comically stupid, reaching for the most shallow platitudes to justify Eunice's increasing savagery, to which she herself is succumbing. ("I'll make you evil before you make me good," Eunice promises Miriam.)
How totally without resources, without a sustaining inner life, must Miriam be that she could throw herself in the same lot with a homicidal maniac--apparently because Eunice is the only person who showed her affection, transient as it is at best.
The filmmakers set themselves to the daunting task of involving us in two people they couldn't remotely ask us to like or care about. But Plummer and Reeves create two profoundly damaged and dangerous people with such wit, insight and comprehension that if you're so disposed you can actually see in them your own frustrations, anger and capacity for denial and easy rationalization.
Yet you would never want to encounter them in real life and would surely want to see them sentenced to, at minimum, life in prison. Even so, "Butterfly Kiss" is finally a love story, and in Reeves' apt description, "like 'Thelma & Louise' on acid."
Butterfly Kiss, 1996. Unrated. A CFP (Cinepix Film Properties) release of a British Screen and Merseyside Film Production Fund presentation of a Dan Films Ltd. production. Director Michael Winterbottom. Producer Julie Baines. Screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce; from an idea by Boyce and Winterbottom. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. Editor Trevor Waite. Costumes Rachael Fleming. Music John Harle. Art director Rupert Miles. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Amanda Plummer as Eunice. Saskia Reeves as Miriam. Des McAleer as Eric McDermott. Ricky Tomlinson as Robert.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times