Non-Linear Editing in The Butterfly Effect, and How it Affects Time, Space, Rhythm and Mood

The Butterfly Effect (2004) is a science-fiction psychological thriller film, directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, and stars Ashton Kutcher in the lead role. It is based on the theory known as the butterfly effect that says every little thing someone does could have huge repercussions for them and the people around them later in life (eg. the fluttering of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon halfway around the world). Kutcher plays college student Evan Treborn, who one day realizes that by reading from the pages of his old journals, he can travel back in time to that very moment to change the past, which is a tempting endeavor for him because he has many traumatic childhood memories he wishes he could erase, or rather, change. Since the film has non-linear editing (the entire story isn’t told in order), I will be discussing how the editing affects things like time, space, rhythm and mood.

Time

The first half of the movie is mostly about Evan’s childhood and the frequent blackouts he experiences, and the second half focuses on an adult Evan trying to return to his childhood to rectify past events. Whenever Evan blacks out, we, as viewers, are sometimes not aware that that is what has happened, because the transition is just a basic straight cut. For example, when his friend Kayleigh’s dad is making them do child pornography, the film cuts from them standing outside to in their basement, which is often done in movies to speed things up and not include anything unnecessary, but here it signifies that Evan does not remember anything in between. The same thing happens for the other traumatic experiences that Evan can’t remember, like when his father strangles him at the Sunnyvale Institution, when him and his friends blow up a neighbour’s mailbox and when Kayleigh’s brother Tommy burns Evan’s dog alive. By doing this, it makes viewers just as oblivious to what happened during Evan’s blackouts and he is, until he finds out later on in the movie.

When Evan is twenty years old and begins to travel back in time using his journals, his return to the past is shown through editing by the shaking of the words on the pages as well as his surroundings. Viewers could just assume that he is time traveling whenever he reads from the journals, but because the movie is confusing since time changes so much and so many alternate universes are created, the editing is sort of important to remind viewers that things are changing once again.

Space

Like time, Evan’s blackouts affect space as well because almost every time he blacks out, there is a straight cut from one place to another, causing viewers to be disoriented for a moment, like Evan. My favourite transition that changes both time and space without involving a blackout or time travel is when Evan is writing in his journal at age 13 in the moving van and then there is a match cut to Evan writing again, but this time he is writing a test in school at age 20.

Rhythm

Besides the opening scene of the movie, most of the first half of the movie is slow and calm, but then every time there is a blackout, the scene changes instantaneously from, say, zooming in on the mailbox one second and then the kids running scared through the woods while dragging their friend Lenny along the next second, which can make viewers who have never seen the movie before jump. The rest of the movie is slow going too, but every once in a while, someone or something happens out of nowhere that frightens viewers, like the first time Evan went to visit Lenny in his 20s and Lenny just snapped and attacked him, for example.

Also, whenever Evan changes something by going back in time, he wakes up in an alternate universe and is greeted by a nosebleed and a series of new memories that flash quickly through his mind, so that he just gets bits and pieces of images and sounds from the new future he has created for himself and his friends. For example, one of the times he goes back to the incident with Tommy and his dog, he gives Lenny a shard to cut the rope of the bag his dog is in (because in the original memory, he tried to help but could not get the rope untied, resulting in the death of Evan’s dog). When Evan comes to after the blackout, he tries to reason with Tommy, who actually seems to consider not lighting the bag on fire, but then  Lenny comes out of nowhere and stabs Tommy in the back with the shard, killing him. When Evan wakes up in his new reality, his mind shows him flashes of things like playing with his dog, Tommy’s gravestone, Kayleigh hitchhiking and Lenny being institutionalized at Sunnyvale.

Mood

The mood of the film is mostly dark, obviously, but it often goes back and forth between what are – seemingly – happy scenes and sad or scary scenes. For example, the first scene of the movie is of present day Evan at Sunnyvale trying to go back in time one last time, but then just before he succeeds (which we see at the end of the movie), switches to kids riding their bikes on a bright, sunny day.

The first time Evan wakes up after having changed the past – the child pornography incident, specifically, he finds himself in bed, but the room he is in is much brighter and the colours are more vibrant than any other room he has ever lived in, signifying that, like this dorm room, Evan’s new reality should also be the happiest and most cheerful of all. Of course, that isn’t the case. At first, things seem fine because Evan and Kayleigh are on a date, talking, and a generic love song that appears in lots of movies is playing (“May Angels Lead You In” by Jimmy Eat World). But then Evan is notified that his car has been vandalized by none other than a recently-released-from-prison Tommy.

So, I think it is safe to say that editing is very important in movies like this, where the story is not told in the right order, to establish time and space, to use rhythm to show things like flashbacks, and to create moods.

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One thought on “Non-Linear Editing in The Butterfly Effect, and How it Affects Time, Space, Rhythm and Mood

  1. Yeah, I notice that editor Peter Amundson mostly does this kind of genre film. But this is certainly a film that will be remembered in the genre and a good study film for learning how to do flashbacks.

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