Following two big-budget productions, “Interview With the Vampire” and “Michael Collins,” Neil Jordan is back on terra firma with “The Butcher Boy,” a brilliantly bold, haunting evocation of an intensely troubled and violent childhood. A remarkably faithful adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s macabre 1992 novel, Jordan’s 10th feature is an ambitious pic that remains intimately focused, a brutally honest exploration of a disturbed mind that is both horrific and darkly comic. With the right handling and sensitive marketing, this Warners release could go way beyond the specialized circuit to score high with intelligent viewers seeking provocative entertainment.
An instant classic about coming of age in the Ireland of yesteryear, “The Butcher Boy” ranks among the best of its genre, taking its place beside Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” Fellini’s “Amarcord” and, especially, Terence Davies’ “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes,” which also used magical realism. There’s no doubt that “The Butcher Boy,” which is set during the Cold War, is a personal film; born and raised in Dublin in the 1950s, Jordan is practically the same age as his protagonist.
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Though not as overtly political and less controversial from a moral standpoint, inevitable comparisons will also be made to Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” for a number of reasons. Like the 1971 film, new pic is a narratively audacious, visually stunning expose of a misfit who goes in and out of mental institutions. And Jordan employs mordant voiceover narration to provide satirical commentary on the hero’s actions and thoughts. But Jordan goes further than Kubrick in his subjective treatment, consistently maintaining the point of view of a boy who’s part Huckleberry Finn, part Hannibal Lecter; everything in the movie is seen from his distorted perspective.
The first reel finds Francie (Eamonn Owens) to be a bright, vivacious boy who, with his best friend, Joe (Alan Boyle), plays all kinds of outdoor games — including cowboys and Indians, influenced by such popular TV shows as “The Lone Ranger.” He particularly enjoys torturing his pompous neighbors, the vicious Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) and her prim and timid son, Philip (Andrew Fullerton).
Coming home one day, Francie finds his mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) about to attempt suicide. He registers strongly her plea, “Promise me you’ll never let me die,” as she is taken to the hospital, diagnosed with a nervous breakdown. His father (Stephen Rea) is a lazy drunk who lies in bed watching TV and once in a while plays his trumpet for solace. Dangerously temperamental, Dad could just as easily beat his son as smash the TV set on a whim.
Mom is released, and preparations are under way for the arrival of Uncle Alo (Ian Hart), a supposed big shot, from London. In the small village, gossip is rampant, and nothing irritates Francie more than derogatory stories about his parents. In fact, his main motivation is to protect the family’s honor and avenge those who violate it. In the film’s most horrific and bloody scene, Francie kills Mrs. Nugent, then buries her “where she belongs,” under rotten cabbage.
It is impossible to relate accurately the film’s plot, for the narrative is one long monologue composed of numerous episodes, big and small, in Francie’s life. The screenplay, a collaboration of novelist McCabe and Jordan, is admirably loyal to the book, structured as richly detailed, emotionally dense stream-of-consciousness. This is one of the major achievements of the film: While there are strong scenes and turning points, no single event or action gets preferential treatment.
Francie’s saga is basically a shockingly sorrowful account of pain and loss, beginning with his mother’s death, which occurs while he’s away and thus makes him feel guilty forever. He later loses his father and his uncle, as well as his best friend, who betrays him. Yet the boy, like the film, is not devoid of humor or self-consciousness. In the correctional institution, Francie becomes an altar boy and experiences a vision. He begins interacting with Our Lady (Sinead O’Connor), a saintly angel whose periodic appearances provide advice and comfort.
Denouement jumps ahead to the present, when the mature Francie (played by a red-haired Rea) is released from yet another asylum, having to face the “real world” on his own. True to all of Jordan’s interesting pictures, moral ambiguity prevails in “The Butcher Boy,” which, unlike “A Clockwork Orange,” refuses to judge its characters or take sides on the controversial issues of mental illness, violent crime and society’s approach to these problems.
With the help of Adrian Biddle’s ace lensing, Jordan gives the story a crisp look, keeping it sparkling and bouncing along; the scenes are never held an instant too long. Special kudos to the smooth editing of Tony Lawson, who splendidly integrates the bitingly resonant narration into the Hitchcockian plot.
In the lead, Owens, a child who has never acted before, is a natural with an expressive face and aptly violent movements. The other thesp responsible for the movie’s strong impact is Rea, as Francie the child, in his caustic voiceover narration as Francie’s father and as the adult Francie.
Like a rich Dickens novel, the film is sprinkled with standout character performances that give it its frenzied, seriocomic texture, including Boyle as buddy Joe, Shaw as Mrs. Nugent, O’Sullivan as Ma Brady, Hart as Uncle Alo, author McCabe as the village idiot Jimmy-the-Skite, and singer O’Connor as Our Lady.
“The Butcher Boy” is without doubt Jordan’s most startlingly original and accomplished film to date.