342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

“I asked the actor playing the priest, a very nice actor, ‘Would you mind repeating those lines, but this time would you wear this alien fly head?'”–Neil Jordan, The Butcher Boy commentary track

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Sinéad O’Connor, Alan Boyle, Aisling O’Sullivan

PLOT: In flashback, the grown-up Francie Brady describes his childhood in a poor Irish village: the son of a drunk and a depressed mother, he passes his days getting into mischief with his best (and only) friend, Joe. As his home life deteriorates, Francie increasingly blames his stuck-up neighbor Mrs. Nugent for his troubles. His escalating attacks on the poor woman result in him being sent first to a strict Catholic boarding school, then to a mental hospital, as he grows more violent and detached from reality.

Still from the Butcher Boy (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was based on Patrick McCabe’s stream-of-consciousness novel “The Butcher Boy.” McCabe co-wrote the adaptation with director Neil Jordan. The writer also appears in a small role as the town drunk.
  • The title comes from an old folk ballad (probably English in origin) that became popular in Ireland in the 1960s.
  • An uncredited Stephen Rea provides the narration as the adult Francie Brady.
  • One of Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll take any of the visitations from the glowing, foul-mouthed Virgin Mary, played with straight-faced seriousness by Sinéad O’Connor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy in a bonnet; Virgin Sinéad; ant-head aliens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With schizophrenic nostalgia, The Butcher Boy starts from an intense, uncompromising subjectivity and jumps down a rabbit hole of boyish delusion.


Original trailer for The Butcher Boy

COMMENTS: Shot on location in postcard-pretty County Monaghan with a cast of locals supplemented by stalwarts like Stephen Rea and , The Butcher Boy is more Irish than Van Morrison drinking a pint of Guinness while singing “Danny Boy” on St. Patrick’s Day backed by a chorus of leprechauns. Not only is it soaked in Emerald Isle cliches—pedophile priests, Marian mania, depressive ballads, town drunks, and wit even dryer and more damaging than the whiskey that’s constantly passed around—but the authentic brogue is so thick that non-Irish may have to figure out much of the dialogue from contextual clues. The linguistic difficulty is further complicated by the fact that our young antihero Francie has his own private lingo, which includes terms like “bog men” (which he uses to refer to the indistinguishable residents of institutions) and the “garage” (the institutions themselves; often rendered as “the garage for bad bastards” or “the garage for pigs.”) I think that those who can parse the accents may actually be missing out on a flavor; Francie’s semi-literate babble sometimes comes across as guttural nonsense poetry.

It’s not all blarney, however. Butcher Boy‘s Irish eyes don’t always smile, and when they do, they’re usually squinting through tears. The Butcher Boy is 100% the story of one Francie Brady, and it’s a story more tragic than comic. Francie’s first memories are of playing “Geronimo” with his best chum Joe on a verdant overlook before a crater lake. From the illusory happiness of a childhood games the story arc plummets straight down, as heartache after heartache befalls the poor lad—most at least partially of his own making. An ill-advised boyhood theft of an apple leads the aggrieved Mrs. Nugent to declare that Francie’s poor, delinquent parents are “pigs,” an unwise accusation that the boy will take perverse pride in throwing back in her face through the coming years. Francie goes from mischief-maker to miscreant step by inevitable step, his innocence slipping away his misdeeds send him first to a delinquent boy school, then to a mental hospital, with a stopover as a butcher’s apprentice when he becomes the breadwinner in his rapidly diminishing family. The idealized, nostalgic Ireland of the 1960s, all sock hops and carnivals and brand new TVs beaming “The Lone Ranger” and “The Fugitive” into cozy living rooms, turns out to be as false and corrupt as Francie’s Da’s hazy memories of his honeymoon. Deliberately set at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, the hysteria of nuclear war hangs over everyone and everything: a man repurposes a well as an anti-nuke bunker, and a shopwoman frets that “it will be a bitter day for this town if the world comes to an end.” But the real apocalypse is brewing inside Francie’s mind.

We see that apocalypse literally lay out in a dream sequence after Francie is sedated, but he’s lost touch with reality long before then. At first, his delusions are simply the normal blind spots of any rosy-cheeked lad: he has no concept of how sick his mother really is, or that his beloved uncle may not be the great success he claims to be over in England. The loss of his first parent sends him over the edge, however, and we soon find him engaging in Mansonesque vandalism, accompanied by a schizophrenic dialogue with his own future self. (That conversation may be as much a directorial technique for getting the book’s first-person dialogue onto the screen as a sign of a psychotic break; but it serves to remind us that this story is being told by an insane man in flashback, and may not be entirely reliable.) By the time Francie reaches his first “school for pigs,” he’s really starting to slip; his bog man classmates are rendered as a chorus that might have wandered in off the set of a Dublin production of “West Side Story.” His flirtation with the Virgin Mary begins as a ruse to get out of pushing a hoe, but, surprisingly enough, the Lady (whom he refers to as “Missus,”) really does show up; and at this point, it’s clear he’s lost the ability to tell fact from fiction. It won’t be long before the ant-headed aliens start rampaging through his town, barbecuing pigs on the way. Jordan literalizes Francie’s hallucinations, and in its own way, the result is as effective as McCabe’s words were on the page. Francie’s childish imagination, informed by comic books, sci-fi invasion flicks, and black and white episodes of the “Lone Ranger,” renders well in low-fi CGI. The unreal B-movie quality of Butcher Boy‘s fantasy sequences matches the cinematic imagination of its subject.

It almost goes without saying that The Butcher Boy owes most of its success to its young lead, Eamonn Owens. The book was a long monologue that locked us into Francie’s perspective and voice; thus, the savagely individual linguistic quirks that sometimes make it into the dialogue. Film is a more objective medium, so a bad performance could have doomed it. Fortunately, Owens is a natural. And even when he doesn’t nail his line readings, Jordan makes it work. Much of the movie has Francie speaking ironically, sincerely believing that he has one up on the adults—and in a sense he does, in that they don’t realize just how much trouble the little delinquent really is. Francie puts on a front for grown ups, and although we know how troubled the lad is, his not-a-bad-bastard act is usually good enough to fool people who don’t want to see the darkness in a child’s heart. Take the scene where Francie, clad in a parish-supplied bonnet, sucks on sweets while his confessor interrogates him. He’s sly and carefree, thinking that he’s pulled a scam to swap candy for hard labor. (The entire sequence may be Butcher Boy‘s creepiest, since we can never be certain whether this bizarre role play is a true memory or a surreal substitution for sexual abuse.) Or, consider his mock horror when he learns that hanging has been outlawed in Ireland. Francie’s conversations with adults (outside of his family) can never be taken at face value; Owens always seems insincere, like he’s acting. When it comes to violent outbursts and tantrums, however, he’s perfectly believable, and he is touching when asked to play sorrow. He’s the perfect little brat, hateful, impolite, undisciplined, embodying the natural sociopathy of children left to their own devices. But since we’re privileged to see his circumstances, we understand why Francie turned out as a horrid little monster: raised by pigs, he never had a chance.

Butcher Boy offers up Francie fatalistically, as a brute fact, neither suggesting him as a symbol for something else, nor proposing any practical solution to his problems. I read, via Wikipedia, that the novel explores “concerns about Ireland’s neocolonial status.” This seems like scholarly stretching, and it’s also belittling to Francie’s impeccably idiosyncratic character. There is some symbiosis between Francie and the town—it goes insane with apocalyptic fever at the same moment Francie’s mania reaches its bloody climax—but that’s more narrative resonance than an attempt at broader symbolism. The story does contain an implicit (if unspecific) call to community responsibility and early intervention in cases like Francie’s. Although her class disdain for the Bradys triggers the boy’s psychosis, even the bourgeois Mrs. Nugent recognizes that Francie is not personally responsible for his own misbehavior: “not that it’s the poor child’s fault… it’s no wonder that the boy is the way he is, living in a pigsty.” Could Francie’s mayhem have been headed off? Could he have been taken away from his negligent parents and sent to foster care? Orphanages and other institutions are clearly no solution. There are Francies in every town in the world, just waiting to explode. The Butcher Boy‘s only answer to the global epidemic of Francies is empathy. Is there a bratty little Francie running around in your neighborhood, stealing your apples? Maybe give him a hug instead of a scolding. It might just save your life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like a rich Dickens novel, the film is sprinkled with standout character performances that give it its frenzied, seriocomic texture… without doubt Jordan’s most startlingly original and accomplished film to date.”–Eugene Levy, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…original work, an attempt to combine magic realism with everyday reality, and tie it together with Francie’s own brash, defiant personal style (he is not a dumb kid). Yet in some way the movie held me outside; I didn’t connect in the way I wanted to, and by the end I was out of sympathy with the material…. Would I have been more moved by a more realistic approach, rather than this film with miracles and horrific mirages? I can’t say. I know there is something substantial here. I can’t recommend the film, and yet if it sounds intriguing to you I certainly think you should see it.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“Intermittent sight gags randomly pop up – bet you didn’t know the Commies were actually bug-eyed aliens a la ‘Buckaroo Banzai’? – while the dark narrative isn’t about to prevent surreally comic episodes of cinematic Dadaism.”–Merle Bertrand, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: The Butcher Boy (1997)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Neil Jordan (The Butcher Boy): The Provocative Son – Neil Jordan interview with Industry Central

Neil Jordan ponders The Butcher Boy – Barbara MacKellar article for Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1998

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BUTCHER BOY (1995)‘s original review for this site

HOME VIDEO INFO: Warner Brothers released the DVD (buy) way back in 2007, and has yet to update it (although they have thankfully kept it in circulation). It includes a few minutes of deleted scenes, mostly from the ending with the grown-up Francie. Neil Jordan delivers a commentary track with all the necessary background information. Best of all, the disc can currently be found at discount prices, almost as cheap to own as it is to rent.

The Butcher Boy is not (yet) on Blu-ray. It is available on-demand.

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  1. FINALLY!!!!! I HAVE BEEN LOBBYING FOR THIS FILM TO MAKE IT ON THE LIST FOR YEARS AND NOW WE FINALLY GOT IT!

  2. After all these years of following this blog, and championing this film for The List, it’s finally made it. Kind of gives you a warm feeling, doesn’t it?

  3. Is that like in “The Count of Monte Cristo”, Where there is life, there is hope?