A picturesque Irish town and a young Irish boy in knee pants. This might seem familiar: a coming of age story. But, Neil Jordan's "The Butcher Boy" (1997) set in this milieu is a violent fantasia, which explores a disturbed mind that is both darkly comic and horrific. Irish director Neil Jordan is famous for his audacious and creative movies like "The Crying Game", "Mona Lisa". He has also made main-stream, commercial movies like "Interview with the Vampire", "The Brave One" and recently "Byzantium." "Butcher Boy", based on 1992 Patrick McCabe's novel, travels on a hard terrain, contemplating the hidden extremes of human nature.
The story is set in a small Irish town in the 60s. In this cold war era, all the townspeople the fear of atomic obliteration on their minds. Our young protagonist (12 year old) Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) is a bright, vivacious boy and a local bully. His father is an alcoholic (Stephen Rea), who frequently becomes abusive and his mother is mentally disturbed (Aisling O'Sullivan). So, Francie spends most of his time with his best friend Joe (Alan Boyle). Their main spare-time activity is to torment other kids, especially the timid Philip (Andrew Fullerton), whose mother, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), is Francie's arch-nemesis.
When Francie (after his mother's suicide) does a horrible thing to Nugent's house, he is sent to reform school. There he descends into darkness, which is highly accelerated by Joe's friendship with Phillip. He thinks that Nugent has alienated Joe from him by giving gifts. Francie is given shock therapy and later sees visions of Virgin Mary. Later, when he was out and working in a slaughterhouse he comes up with an horrific and shocking idea to extract revenge upon Mrs. Nugent. The whole story is irreverently narrated by the adult Francie Brady.
Pulling off a dark comedy mixed with horror is a very tough job, but Jordan does it with finesse. Even though the movie lacks feeling, it spares us from the simplifying sentiment and gives us something richer, disturbing and more complex. Through Adrian Biddle’s cinematography, Jordan gives a bouncing and sparkling energy to the story. The narrative has lot of internal monologues, which is darkly comic, especially, Francie's descriptions of certain characters. Working with Mr. McCabe, Jordan's script capturing the tone of this quirky, tricky novel and does a noteworthy job of entering Francie's mind without leaving the rest of the village behind. The script connives to follow Francie, even though we are afraid of what's going to come next -- the ferocious end result of all this swirling imagery.
Eamonn Owens made his feature film debut with "Butcher Boy", but he looks like a natural with an expressive face. However, Francie's character doesn't claw under our skin. It's more or less looks like watching a cheeky, raging adolescent from a safe distance. The movie's other strong performance comes from Stephen Rea as Francie's father and the adult Francie. His caustic voice-over narration reveals us a boy full of deep-seated hatred and hurt.
Moral ambiguity prevails in this movie, where it refuses to judge its characters and also refuses take sides on the issues of mental illness, violent crimes and society’s approach to these problems. Though not highly controversial or overtly political like "A Clockwork Orange", comparisons can be made for a number of reasons. It provides satirical commentary and is narratively audacious but "Butcher Boy" takes Kubrick's subjective treatment further by fully maintaining the point of view of a boy with a distorted perspective. So, the heightened climax looks much more exciting to Francie but remains unsatisfying for viewers.
"The Butcher Boy" is never confronted by adult morality or piety. It remains pure and honest to the last scene, when adult Francie asks his radiant vision of the Virgin Mary, ''What're you doing, Missus, still talking to the likes of me?'' It is an anti coming-of-age movie and the only way to watch this movie is to surrender to the experience.
The Butcher Boy -- IMDb