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The Butcher Boy (1998)

January 28th, 2008 · 4 Comments

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Synopsis
“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 to Mrs. Nugent.” Lying in a hospital bed covered in bandages and surrounded by police, the buoyant voice of an adult Francie Brady (Stephen Rea) takes us back to his childhood in a provincial town in Ireland. Young Francie (Eamonn Owens) has everything he could want playing cowboys and Indians in the woods with his best friend Joe (Alan Boyle).

Stealing apples from the yard of the priggish Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) earns Francie a beating from his alcoholic, trumpet playing Da (Stephen Rea). Francie later catches his Ma (Aisling O’Sullivan) standing on the dining room table with noose in hand. After a stint in “the garage” to cure her breakdown, Ma returns from the hospital, but fighting with her drunken husband reaches such a pitch that Francie runs off to Dublin to watch sci-fi movies. He returns to learn his Ma has killed herself.

Francie comforts himself in petty torments of Mrs. Nugent and her son Phillip. When Mrs. Nugent sends her “bog man” brothers to knock some sense into Francie, he responds by breaking into her house and trashing it. This wins Francie a ticket to “the house with a hundred windows”, a school for boys. Francie makes an impression on a priest (Brendan Gleeson) by revealing he’s had visitations with the Holy Mother (Sinead O’Connor). A compromising run-in with another priest gets Francie sent home.

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Francie torments himself over the news that Joe has not only befriended Phillip Nugent in his absence, but gave him goldfish Joe won at a carnival. Joe no longer feels comfortable around the increasingly volatile Francie. Unable to cope (“So long Tonto, this is your old pal … the Lone Ranger”) Francie blames Mrs. Nugent for his troubles. While the town folk gather to pray for a resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Francie gives them “the best show that old town had ever seen.”

Production history
The Butcher Boy was a 1992 novel by Patrick McCabe. Written as a first person stream of consciousness, the dark humored tale was set in rural Ireland of the early 1960s. It concerned “the incredible Francie Brady,” a boy who escapes his dismal home life by retreating into his imagination. When the real world comes crashing in, he reacts violently. The book won the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize For Fiction, and was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in the U.K.

Director Neil Jordan read the book while he was filming Interview With The Vampire. He thought there was a great movie in it and optioned the film rights. McCabe wrote a first draft screenplay. When Jordan read it, he asked the novelist why he hadn’t included any voice-over narration. McCabe said he was under the impression that “voice-over was rubbish.” The director disagreed, wanting Francie’s unique voice to run through the film. Jordan wrote a second draft, calling on McCabe to help him whenever he got stuck.

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Bankrolled by Warner Bros., The Butcher Boy opened in the U.K. in February 1998. Days before it was released in the States, two boys wearing camouflage shot and killed four students and a teacher outside a middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. While a few film critics – including Roger Ebert – noticed similarities and were unsettled by them, many hailed the film as the finest work of Jordan’s career, likening it to A Clockwork Orange. The film fell through the cracks, until it finally surfaced on DVD in 2007.

Opinion
A plot summary of The Butcher Boy cannot do justice to the originality of the film, which may be comedy, drama or horror depending on your perspective. While not as unsettling as A Clockwork Orange, the film does revel in the brilliant vernacular of its narrator (“Poor old Bubbles, what he was really trying to say was: Francie, you can have the Francie Not A Bad Bastard Anymore Diploma as long as you get out of here and keep your mouth shut”) and scenes which alternate brilliantly between humor and disturbing violence.

McCabe & Jordan’s adaptation skillfully strikes a tone of heightened imagination – with the world seen through the eyes of a boy – yet never tips overboard into farce. The cast is terrific, particularly Stephen Rea, a criminally underused actor who delivers one of the most memorable voice-over narrations ever recorded. While Francie’s visions of a mushroom cloud or a Holy Mother who drops the f-word also stand out, the fact that the film is almost impossible to classify speaks volumes about how novel it is.

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Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “How do you make a film about youthful insanity and brutal murder without totally depressing or scaring off your audience? It’s a challenge, but director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) has taken Patrick McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy and turned it into a strikingly interesting and strangely enjoyable film.”

The Butcher Boy is a roller-coaster ride for your brain. It’s the most alive and deeply-felt movie I’ve seen in 1998, and that’s thanks to the endlessly extraordinary performance by 11-year old Eamonn Owens as Francie Brady, the Butcher Boy,” writes Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid.

Keith Phipps at The Onion A.V. Club writes, “The material is unpleasant, to be sure, but it’s expertly handled in a manner that outshines other films dealing with similar topics. Jordan captures all the confusion of childhood, and the terrors of a childhood gone wrong, without soft-pedaling or offering prefabricated moral lessons. In the process, he creates an unforgettable film.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Black comedy · Coming of age · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · Father/son relationship · Small town

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sir jorge // Jan 28, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    I want to check that out for sure, I’m adding it to my netflix que

  • 2 Neil Fulwood // Jan 30, 2008 at 3:09 am

    Saw this a few years ago when it was televised on Britain’s Channel 4. Your review is spot-on. ‘The Butcher Boy’ is laconic, funny nostalgic and scares the shit out of you all at the same time.

    Any thoughts on Jordan’s recent film ‘Breakfast on Pluto’? For my money, his best since ‘The Butcher Boy’.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jan 30, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Jorge: I think you would really enjoy The Butcher Boy. It’s tailor made for the Macabre DVD Reviews.

    Neil: Neil Jordan has been flying under the radar with me for a while. I never got around to seeing The Good Thief and I missed Breakfast on Pluto too. Without encountering what might be considered stellar success, he’s definitely directed some strong films over the last 20 years. I’ll have to check those out. Thanks!

  • 4 mardi haywood // Jun 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    I loved it how do i get a dvd copy

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