Friday April 3, 1998
Ireland's Neil Jordan has made some unforgettable movies, "Mona Lisa" and "The Crying Game," among them, but "The Butcher Boy" may just be his best.
Jordan is remarkable in his ability to reveal people's inner lives and the interaction between everyday life and an individual's imagination and driving passions. Never has this been more evident than in his unique and uniquely challenging film of Patrick McCabe's celebrated coming-of-age novel, which has been compared to "Catcher in the Rye" and "Huckleberry Finn."
To state that "The Butcher Boy" is about a 12-year-old small-town Irish boy with a demented mother and an alcoholic father inevitably suggests gloom and doom. The most amazing aspect of a consistently amazing film is that as dark as it gets, it is so exuberant, as irrepressible as its young hero, jaunty even to its deadliest moment. The combination of Jordan and McCabe results in humor emanating from even the direst of circumstances and deeds.
Maybe it's because the parents (Stephen Rea, Aisling O'Sullivan) would be free spirits by nature were they not tethered by their demons, for their son Francie (Eamonn Owens) is possessed by an indomitable, fearless spirit and a strong sense of humor. He's by nature quick-witted, outspoken, hearty, prankish and a fighter, and he has a characteristically Irish, poetic way with speech. He forever comes on too strong, as people lacking in a loving stability in their lives so often do.
The time is the early '60s, which is crucial in shaping Francie's sensibility and destiny. He and his best friend, Joe (Allan Boyle, a strong foil to the formidable Owens), are enraptured by comic book and TV heroes and '50s alien movies at a time when the U.S. is heading toward the Cuban missile crisis. Joe's a nice, ordinary kid who has no trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
But all these influences, coupled with a serenely accepted Roman Catholicism, and a sad, isolating chain of events that overtakes Francie, fuel in him an apocalyptic vision that is expressed by Jordan and his gifted cameraman Adrian Biddle with a witty, poignant conviction. Fate, implacable and unjust, as usually it is, however, threatens to overwhelm a boy left alone in the world, faced with enemies that are at once real and imagined. The experience of aloneness that everyone knows at one time or another gives the film a sense of universality. Indeed, McCabe has reported that Francie's story has been said to show "the mask of unbearable sadness through the ages."
Francie's nemesis, who takes on cosmic significance in his imagination, is a neighbor (Fiona Shaw) who represents a killjoy sense of bourgeoise propriety so relentless and controlling that it reminds us anew of how destructive, how contagious, such individuals can be. Always the most resourceful and compelling of actresses, Shaw is at once funny and scary in her implacability.
Rea and O'Sullivan convey beautifully the ultimate sense of doom of the truly defeated, and Milo O'Shea plays a priest with bizarre demons of his own. Sinead O'Connor is the exquisite, loving but down-to-earth Virgin Mary of Francie's visions. Elliot Goldenthal's jazzy score is attuned perfectly to the film's quicksilver changes in mood and tone and incorporates pop standards in a startlingly apt way.
"The Butcher Boy" seems in every way a film destined to be a classic, faultlessly shaped, buoyant and idiosyncratic. It's a work of awesome power and passion with an often hilarious sense of absurdity in regard to the human condition. And in Eamonn Owens it has a youthful actor whose talent is clearly protean. Redheaded and freckled, he recalls Butch Jenkins, the most adorably real and natural of Hollywood's boy actors of the Golden Era, but Owens is capable of expressing a manic drive and outrage way beyond the ken of any vintage family epic.
The Butcher Boy, 1998. R, for language and violence. A Warner Bros. release of a Geffen Pictures production. Director-executive producer Neil Jordan. Producers Redmond Morris and Stephen Woolley. Screenplay by Jordan and Patrick McCabe; based on the novel by McCabe. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle. Editor Tony Lawson. Costumes Sandy Powell. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production designer Anthony Pratt. Art director Anna Rackard. Set decorator Josie MacAvin. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Eamonn Owens as Francie Brady. Stephen Rea as Benny Brady. Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Nugent. Aisling O'Sullivan as Annie Brady.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times