Film Scouts Reviews

"The Butcher Boy"

by Karen Jaehne

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After seeing Neil Jordan's "Butcher Boy," the first impression is ineluctably "Holy shit." It leaves you with the faintly unpleasant sensation as dealing with excrement, but it's a helluva demonstration of film at its finest. That Newsweek killed their review of the film is a symptom of what is wrong with us rather than what is wrong with the filmmakers or the character Francie Brady - a young homicidal maniac of the film's title, and the kind of kid we need to understand if we are even to begin to deal with violent youngsters.

"Butcher Boy" is an analysis of what goes wrong, step by step, in the life of an Irish kid in a tiny village, where everybody knows - or thinks they know - everybody else's business. Francie Brady is played by Eamonn Owens in an extraordinarily convincing performance of an indefatigable, intelligent, imaginative, and doomed personality. It is Owens' first role, and he holds the film together from the downbeat performance of Stephen Rea as his drunken human zero of a father to the cryptic presence of Sinead O'Connor as the Virgin Mary, appearing to Francie Brady in order to inspire him in seeking revenge.

A highly expressionistic style tells us that we are not in the Ireland of most Irish literature, even though "Butcher Boy" is a celebrated novel by Patrick McCabe - who co-wrote the screenplay with director Jordan and therefore must be copacetic about the changes in the film. Among the important changes are the portrayal of Mrs. Nugent, played by Fiona Shaw with superb hauteur and petty bourgeois fuss. Fiona Shaw exercises her sharp comedic skills to make Mrs. Nugent into a satirical symbol of middle-class pieties and aspirations. Ms. Shaw's body has all the angularity of a cartoon fuss-budget, and she dolls herself up in ugly shades of green and purple with hats raked on her brow, as if she's the height of elegance - a genuine fashion flub.

Likewise, the Nugents' house seems to derive from a Dr. Seuss book, and when Francie vandalizes it, he's aiming not just at Mrs. Nugent, but everything she represents. In the book, McCabe creates Mrs. Nugent with compassion and shows her opinions of Francie Brady and his family to be on the mark and uttered in thoughtless contempt. In the film, she is two-dimensional and self-righteous, and her role as Francie's bête noir derives from her remark that Francie's family live like pigs.

Mrs. Nugent calls the Brady house a pigsty. This is spoken in outrage after Francie starts to persecute her little boy, and again, in the book, the kids are only doing what kids do, but in the film, Francie is justified by the way the Nugents indulge their child, while poor Francie is hopelessly neglected by his parents. We may laugh when Francie tells the stories about his family, because a child's irony at his mother's attempted suicide makes it less horrific (she looks down at him while preparing the rope and says, "Ya wouldn't let me down now, would ya, Francie boy?"). But Francie's humor is his only self-defense, and when he dons a pig-mask and proceeds to play the pig, Mrs. Nugent gets to see what she has wrought. Fiona Shaw plays her with such thorough obtuseness that her one moment of surprise at Francie's wrath comes as an unexpected dollop of humanity. But it vanishes as quickly as it arrived, and we are left with no other conclusion than that the Mrs. Nugents of the world are wickedly cruel for measuring everyone by their own privileged standards. When Francie prepares his Irish stew, the film enters the arena of ballads and Irish lore.

The Irish penchant for fantasy and exaggeration is widely celebrated, and it certainly is the way we should understand the Ballad of Francie Brady, especially since the backdrop of Francie's life along the river (reminiscent of Tom Sawyer) is mixed in with other news of the era: an Irishman in the White House, a crisis in Cuba, putting a man on the moon, and television - black and white television invading the living room. Francie lets TV offer him a new reality and, through it, he finds his place in a world beyond the village - until his Da kicks it in.

Step by step, Francie loses his connections to reality. To watch them go is almost like tracing Francie's disintegration, neurosis by neurosis, until his psychopathology is out of control, beyond anything the Diagnostic Handbook could name. If we are going to write whiney articles about children with guns, if we are to understand what happens to turn a nice little kid into a Superpredator, we need to watch a film like this carefully - very carefully - and not become the Mrs. Nugents of the world.

The people who fear Francie Brady and "Butcher Boy" are always proud of their superior education, impeccable genetic heritage, and grasp on the rule book of society. These kids are little more than a nuisance to them - until the kids go ballistic and threaten the social contract that has kept them in their place, that is to say, food stamps for docility. Nobody wants to see Francie Brady anywhere but on the screen.

It is Neil Jordan's stock in trade to create unforgettable characters who live on the very edge of civilized society (for example, "The Crying Game," "Michael Collins") and demonstrate how they got that way. Francie Brady is like Tom Sawyer in "A Clockwork Orange," but he captures us with his charm, and he will live on despite the censorship at Newsweek or even Time.

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