Butcher Boy (1997): Neil Jordan’s Best Film?

Galway Film Festival 1997 (World Premiere)–Following his big-budget Hollywood productions (Interview With the Vampire, Michael Collins), Neil Jordan is back on terra ferma with The Butcher Boy, a brilliantly bold, hauntingly disturbing evocation of an intensely troubled and violent childhood.

A remarkably faithful adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s 1992 macabre novel, Jordan’s tenth feature is a unique experience: an ambitious epic 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 Warner release could go way beyond the art house and specialized circuit to score high with intelligent viewers seeking provocative entertainment.

An instant classic about coming of age in Ireland of yesteryear, Butcher Boy ranks among the best of its genre, including Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Fellini’s Amarcord, and most specifically Terence Davis’ Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, which also used magical realism as their style. There’s no doubt that 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.

Though less overtly political and less controversial from a moral standpoint, inevitable comparisons will be made with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, for a number of reasons. Like the 1971 film, Butcher Boy is a narratively audacious, visually stunning expose of a misfit who goes in and out of mental institutions. Structurally too, Jordan employs a mordant voice-over narration to provide satirical commentary on the hero’s actions and thoughts. However, 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 plays with his best friend, Joe (Alan Boyle), all kinds of outdoor games, like 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) just minutes before attempting a 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 mercilessly beat his son as furiously smash the TV set on a whim.

Mom is released from the hospital and preparations are under way for the arrival of Uncle Alo (Ian Hart), a supposedly big-shot, from London. Living in a small village, gossip is rampant–nothing irritates Francie more than nasty, 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’s impossible to do justice and tell the film’s plot accurately for the narrative is one long monologue, composed of numerous episodes, big and tiny, in Francie’ life. The screenplay, a collaboration of novelist McCabe and Jordan, is admirably loyal to the book, structured as a 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 get preferential treatment over the others.

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 (who die), and best friend, who betrays him. Yet the boy–and 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.

The denouement jumps ahead to the present, when the mature Francie (played by a red-haired Stephen 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 Butcher Boy, a film that unlike 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 go to the smooth editing of Tony Lawson, who splendidly integrates the bitingly resonant narration into the Hitchcockian plot.

In the lead, child-actor Owens is a total natural, permitting us to read his expressive face and violent movements and to perceive the infinite shadings of his extraordinarily complex role. The other thesp responsible for the movie’s strong impact is the hugely talented Rea, in his caustic voice-over 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, serio-comic 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 a doubt Neil Jordan’s most startlingly original and accomplished film to date.