English 101 instructors sometimes combat plagiarism by having students read a piece and then write a summary from memory, in their own words. Most of the time, the resulting papers hit the beats of the originals, the paraphrased passages wallowing in humdrum vocabulary because the students haven’t yet developed their own voices. Brian Goodman’s Stephen King–like Black Butterfly unfolds a lot like those first-semester freshman compositions. It’s as though writers Marc Frydman and Justin Stanley had seen the thrillers based on King’s books — specifically Misery, The Shining and 1408 — and set out to paraphrase them as they tell the story of a blocked alcoholic writer in the woods who picks up a hitchhiker, only to be held captive until he can finish his next screenplay. Sounds familiar, right?
The beginning picks up some steam by riffing on King’s work almost verbatim: Antonio Banderas plays writer Paul, whom we see in the first frames staring at a typewriter, the sentence “I am stuck” inked over and over on the paper — an easy echo of The Shining’s “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Paul is trying to sell his house for quick cash because he can’t sell a book. When hitchhiker Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) — yes, there’s an unhinged character named Jack — defends Paul from a riled-up truck driver in a diner, Paul brings the drifter home with him, trading some food and shelter for Jack’s handyman skills to make the place more presentable to buyers. Meanwhile, news of a serial killer stalking the area blasts on every TV and radio in sight.
At best, all this might sound like an amusing setup with the potential for twists and fun. But this movie has none of the goofy thrill of the good King adaptations. Goodman shoots everything in pea greens and dry browns shrouded in dull gray, which smothers in drab seriousness a story that could do with some style — and some self-awareness of how derivative it is. Pretty quickly, Jack goes full-on Annie Wilkes when he gives Paul the 12-step pep-talk to quit the bottle and get back to work on his screenplay. Ex-con Jack starts cutting any distractions from Paul’s work, seizing his car keys and trapping him in the house under the guise of doing a good deed. If only Jack had a personality as strong as Kathy Bates’ to prop him up.
Rhys Meyers, usually an enigmatic and thoughtful actor, mimics the timbre of a monotone, emotionless cop — just the facts, ma’am. When Jack puts a knife to the sleeping Paul’s neck one night, Jack drones, “I just wanted to show you something real,” as if he’s Vin Diesel ordering a hamburger at a drive-thru window. Banderas, who doesn’t get to speak a single good line, still manages to convey panic, terror and confusion. It’s his performance that allows this film to float at all. Banderas should be in a real King adaptation, not a paraphrase of one.