Jordan, Neil: Storyteller Filmmaker

August 1997–It's most fitting that Neil Jordan, the distinguished Irish filmmaker, should receive a career tribute this year at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival.

The Butcher Boy, his tenth feature, is without a doubt his most startlingly original and accomplished film to date. A faithful adaptation of Patrick McCabe's macabre novel, the film is a haunting evocation of an intensely troubled and violent childhood. Centering on a boy who's part Huckleberry Finn, part Hannibal Lecter, The Butcher Boy offers a unique film experience: an ambitious epic that remains intimately focused, a brutally honest exploration of a disturbed mind that is at once terrifying and comic.

It's also fitting that Jordan should be honored at Telluride, a festival that launched the world premiere of The Crying Game, his first big international success. With critical support–and an ingenious marketing campaign–The Crying Game became one of the most talked about films of the entire decade, winning international accolades, including Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director and a well-deserved Oscar for original screenplay.

Critics and viewers who applauded The Crying Game for its complex characterization, narrative twists (and “secrets”), and splendid performances, are bound to be surprised by the audacity and bravura of Jordan's new movie. Like Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, The Butcher Boy is a career summation film, one that evokes prevalent issues in Jordan's former movies, and at the same time is utterly original. Thematically, the film bears resemblance to Jordan's horror-fantasy, The Company of Wolves, an erotically charged reworking of the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” Though lacking the eroticism of the 1984 film, The Butcher Boy is also a violent horror picture that looks at the world from the perspective of a young protagonist, an orphan boy.

Perhaps more important, Jordan's latest film chronicles the evolution of a filmmaker, who, at 45, is at the peak of his creative faculties. Unlike many directors of his generation who achieve success early on and then either spin their wheels or simply decline, each and every Jordan film continues to take risks and experiment with new narrative forms and visual styles. Indeed, few filmmakers have matched Jordan's facility at genre hopping, from the haunting family drama of The Miracle (one of his best but least seen films) to the darkly comic Interview with the Vampire, from the quasi-religious tale of revenge and redemption of Angel (his first film, released in the U.S. as Danny Boy) to the historical evocation of a controversial Irish warrior in Michael Collins.

The secret to Jordan's brilliant career is his unabashed commitment to an almost lost art in present-day Hollywood: Compelling storytelling. Jordan is first and foremost a storyteller, a fabulist who updates and reinvents classic fairy tales for our troubled times. This should come as no surprise for a director who's a successful novelist and whose first movie job was working as a script consultant on John Boorman's Excalibur.

The remarkable achievement of Jordan's cinema is that it's narrative without being literary in the worthy, cautious and archaic way of, say, the Merchant-Ivory school. All of Jordan's modernist fables concern outsiders: call girls and petty hoods, musicians and singers, IRA terrorists and black transvestites. His characters inhabit desolate, embittered milieux, be they the wasteland of Ireland (Angel) or the seedy streets of nighttime London (Mona Lisa). The settings may be recognizably realistic, but Jordan's heightened visual treatment and lyrical mise-en-scene imbue them with emotional resonance that make them surrealistic.

Jordan has created a universe that, while containing elements of Bunuel's darkly comic surrealism, Lynch's hallucinatory, dream-like style, and Scorsese's angst-ridden Catholicism, is unmistakably his own. His rich oeuvre over the last 15 years makes Neil Jordan one of the finest filmmakers working in the cinema today.

Essay commissioned by the 1997 Telluride Film Festival for its Neil Jordan Tribute