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.