The Butcher Boy

1998, R, 105 min. Directed by Neil Jordan. Starring Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Alan Boyle, Aisling O'Sullivan, Sinead O'Connor, Ian Hart, Milo O'Shea.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 1, 1998

Deeply tragic yet savagely funny, The Butcher Boy is an audacious account of a troubled and violent childhood. Set in a small rural town in Ireland in the early 1960s, the story was adapted for the screen by director Neil Jordan and author Patrick McCabe from McCabe's original novel. It tells the story of 12-year-old Francie Brady (Owens) as a kind of portrait of the madman as young boy. Blending aspects of Dickensian social perspective and magical realism, The Butcher Boy shows us the world as experienced by Francie (indeed, the film is carried along by the boy's disconcerting voiceover narration, which is by turns ironic, naïve, and vicious). The boy is both a sympathetic figure, a product of his environment, and a stone cold killer, who seems all the more frightening in light of the current American epidemic of childhood violence. Told from Francie's perspective, the film is an episodic chain of events, none of them carrying any more weight than the others. It's a boy's coming-of-age saga that owes as much to Huck Finn as it does to A Clockwork Orange. As the film opens, we get to know the young Francie: He lives with his alcoholic father and suicidal mother, and jokes and plays with his friend Joe (Boyle), with whom he play-acts a rich fantasy life based on bits and piece of (primarily American) popular culture. TV shows such as The Lone Ranger and The Fugitive, comic book superheroes, space alien movies, Atomic Age news reports, and iconographic wall hangings of the Madonna, JFK, and a happy honeymoon photograph portrait of his parents -- these are some of the unfiltered images slopping around in Francie's brain. The boy's still wearing short pants as his family begins to disintegrate and he becomes fixated on the town's pretentious Mrs. Nugent (Shaw) as the source of all his troubles. Some malicious mischief causes him to be sent away for the first time -- to a school where he is abused by one of the priests -- and when he returns home he begins working in a slaughterhouse. One by one, he's deserted by all those he's ever loved, while his irrational animosity toward the totemic Mrs. Nugent grows. Around this time he also begins having conversations with the Madonna (played by Sinead O'Connor). Far more events than can be related here occur along the way to The Butcher Boy's horrific climax. But through it all we witness it from Francie's perspective as he tries to earn what he facetiously calls the “Francie Brady's Not a Bad Bastard Anymore Award.” After Jordan's last two big studio productions -- Interview With the Vampire and Michael Collins -- it's great to see the director back on more disquieting turf, the sort that has suited him so well in such films as Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves and The Crying Game. The Butcher Boy is bracing and disturbing material, alleviated only by a devilish gallows humor, but it cuts right to the heart of murderous mayhem.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Neil Jordan Films
The Brave One
Jodie Foster might be good at playing a master of vengeance, but The Brave One turns out to be little more than an upscale B-movie about getting even.

Steve Davis, Sept. 14, 2007

Breakfast on Pluto
In this latest from Neil Jordan, Cillian Murphy plays the swinging transvestite Patrick "Kitten" Braden, who wanders through and into the pop-and-politics culture of Seventies England.

Marc Savlov, Jan. 6, 2006

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
The Upside
Remake of a true story of an unlikely friendship is the flattest version yet

Jan. 18, 2019

Marjorie Baumgarten’s Top 10 Films of 2018
Marjorie Baumgarten’s Top 10 Films of 2018

Dec. 28, 2018

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

The Butcher Boy, Neil Jordan, Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Alan Boyle, Aisling O'Sullivan, Sinead O'Connor, Ian Hart, Milo O'Shea

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle