The Butcher Boy
1998Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Alan Boyle, Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea
rancie Brady, the garrulous, pubescent, increasingly abandoned antihero of this adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s prize-winning novel, talks barrels of shite to amuse a gaggle of housewives in the grocery of his provincial Irish village of the early ’60s. The women cackle appreciatively, declaring Francie to be “a rare character,” and then tsk-tsk over his dysfunctional family the second he leaves the store. Perhaps the best film in the career of Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire), The Butcher Boy triumphs by putting the audience in the disturbed mind of its rare central character from start to finish. Obsessed with a swath of the era’s pop culture, from comic books and the Lone Ranger to Grade Z sci-fi movies and “The Fugitive” TV series, Francie’s descent into psychosis and violence enables him to become an authentic fugitive just when the Cuban missile crisis threatens to fulfill his cinematic dream of his hometown charred by an A-bomb holocaust.
Saddled with an alcoholic musician father and a suicidal, ineffectively medicated mother who has to be institutionalized in “the garage,” the charismatic and outwardly sunny Francie bounds through the surrounding woods and lakeshore with his inseparable pal Joe, but draws the ire of shrewish ex-Londoner and snob Mrs. Nugent, whose son is a regular target of Francie’s mischief. Her (real or imagined) slur that the sorry Bradys are “PIGS” remains a motif throughout; Francie does his best to fulfill it by snuffling on all fours at her doormat, smashing her kitchen full of newly-baked buns, and taking scatty revenge on her living-room carpet. Plucked away to a Catholic home for troubled boys, he is forced to form new partnerships with other rural delinquents (“bony-arsed bogmen”) and, after faking communions with the Virgin Mary to win favor with the priests, begins to conjure pep talks with a holy-Hollywood spectre of Our Lady (played by a vocally and visually resplendent Sinead O’Connor).
After scoring with an Oscar-winning sleeper and being entrusted with epic projects like Vampire and Michael Collins, Jordan succeeded spectacularly here in orchestrating a warped, inherently less marketable vision, co-written with the novelist (they reunited for the picaresque Breakfast on Pluto). His collaborators are firing on all cylinders: a phalanx of vivid character actors (Brendan Gleeson and Milo O’Shea as priests who are respectively well-meaning and pedophilic, Fiona Shaw as the hated, hip-swiveling Mrs. Nooge, author McCabe as the town lush); composer Elliot Goldenthal, whose versatile, askew score ranges from mournful brass laments to chugging pop pastiches and blasts of crime jazz; and the late cinematographer Adrian Biddle, who paints the town of Carn with both deceptively warm gold-greenish interiors and drab, muddy street vistas.
Carrot-topped Eamonn Owens makes for an unusually broad-nosed and squat juvenile lead, verging on appropriately porcine. His Francie is an attention-begging ham who is perpetually performing and seldom shuts up, convincingly full of high spirits and repressed sorrow, and truly menacing when crashing a rock into an attacker’s skull. As his erstwhile friend Joe, Alan Boyle (like Owens a nonprofessional) flinches with fear and disgust as his compadre’s increasing aberrance puts an end to their blood-brotherhood. The dynamic of the boys’ partnership, calling each other kemosabe and shaking down Philip Nugent for his Green Lantern books, is the essence of brutish 12-year-old male bonding. Joe’s traitorous cultivation of a friendship with the Nugent lad, and two later scenes where Francie is painfully renounced by his alienated pal, plausibly set the bereft pig-boy—now employed by the town butcher—on a lethal track.
Seen nine years after its truncated theatrical release—Warner Brothers handled it nervously in the US after an Arkansas school massacre—the movie has a hidden star in Jordan perennial Stephen Rea, who not only inhabits the dour misery and regret of trumpet-blowing drunk Da Brady, but also makes the adult Francie’s energetic, unreliable narration one of the movie’s prime assets. Crowing about his reform-school release as a “Not A Bad Bastard Anymore diploma,” or giddily launching into “hyperspace” when recalling his electroshock therapy, Francie has the self-justifying, arrested-development adult voice that’s transplanted from the first-person McCabe book. Rea’s reappearance in the story’s coda is wry, sad and perfect.
The Butcher Boy’s final act, beginning with a staggering mushroom-cloud nightmare effects shot and climaxing with “the job” abbatoir assistant Francie does on his perceived archenemy, never loses its comic dementia or its commitment to letting the twisted point-of-view of a slaughtering Huck Finn speak for itself. “Where are you?” Sinatra warbles on the soundtrack when Francie loses his last real-world ally in Joe, and a mature, rehabilitated man is nowhere to be found at the end of this bleak but exhilarating tragicomedy. Refusing to diagnostically pin the boy’s mania on class, parental neglect, or the Church, Jordan and McCabe make the self-billed “Innnn-credible Francie Brady” a pitiable, lasting enigma.
The Butcher Boy is now available on DVD.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-03-22