The Butcher Boy

The Butcher Boy begins boldly, with lurid comic-book panels filling the screen under the opening credits. This economical grabber has two effects: it sets the stage for the movie’s unstable, violent fantasia, and it assures you that the director, Neil Jordan, knows exactly what he’s doing. Jordan has found a visual hook comparable to the first line of Patrick McCabe’s book (which the movie also uses, courtesy of the script by McCabe and Jordan): “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent.”

What exactly the young Irish protagonist Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) did on Mrs. Nugent is covered in a casually horrible paragraph — an afterthought in a fever dream — and Jordan, like McCabe, is less interested in the crime itself than in the demented logic that leads to it. If you wanted to discount the novel and come up with a crass Hollywood analogy, you might call the movie A Clockwork Orange meets Heavenly Creatures. But then you’d miss what makes The Butcher Boy truly unsettling — the way it crosses, unnoticed, the line between garden-variety childhood tomfoolery and full-blown psychosis.

I invoked Heavenly Creatures for another reason: Eamonn Owens jumps out at you the way Kate Winslet did in her debut. Looking like a pint-size Terry Gilliam (he has the same cartoonish, mile-wide grin), Owens hurries from one mishap to the next, playing Francie with an animalistic exuberance that immediately puts us on his side — everyone else in this grim Irish town seems depressed and waterlogged. It takes a while before you realize that Francie is, as Eric Cartman might say, a very disturbed little boy.

The Butcher Boy presents Francie’s worldview as a toxic brew of pop culture, Cold War paranoia, class resentment, Catholicism, and deficient genes: his dad (Stephen Rea) is an alcoholic failed musician, his mom (Aisling O’Sullivan) a manic-depressive who takes “tablets” and bakes hundreds of sweets for a small party. The ill-fated Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw, with a Dickensian stiff upper lip trembling in outrage) denounces Francie and family as “pigs,” an unfortunate analogy that only fuels Francie’s fire.

The film is narrated by an adult Francie (also played by Stephen Rea), chuckling fondly over his youthful pranks. As Francie’s actions get more violent, the narration remains jovial — it’s like A Christmas Story retold by a sociopath. (There are various darkly funny, and surely unintentional, parallels between the two movies — imagine Ralphie obsessed with butcher’s tools instead of a Red Ryder BB gun.) We want to follow Francie along, and though we dread what’s coming, a part of us wants it to happen — we want the catharsis, the ferocious end result of all this swirling Catholic/pig/slaughterhouse imagery. When it comes, it is flat and undramatic and unsatisfying, and is perhaps Neil Jordan’s crowning achievement as a director. The whole sensually heightened movie leads up to a murder that takes place mostly offscreen. An ingenious touch (and true to the novel): For Francie, the build-up and aftermath are much more exciting.

A lot of the publicity has centered on the casting of Sinéad O’Connor as the Virgin Mary — a decision, Jordan has insisted, that wasn’t meant to provoke controversy. In context, the casting makes perfect sense: the Virgin Mary who appears in Francie’s deranged visions and says things like “For fuck’s sake” wouldn’t have much use for a Pope anyway. She’s fighting for elbow room with a lot of other things in Francie’s head — his mind seems fractured into glitzy panels, like a page of a comic book. And Neil Jordan has assembled those fragments into a forceful and unforgettable ode to madness — a horror film in the truest sense.

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