The Butcher Boy (1997)

D: Neil Jordan
S: Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Eamonn Owens, Sinéad O'Connor

There are some who may find the first forty minutes or so of Neil Jordan's adaptation of Pat McCabe's surreal novel a tittersome poking of fun at the foibles and peculiarities of rural Cavan in the early 1960s. But they will find themselves speechless before the final credits roll and gradually realise that those titters are the only thing keeping them from crawling under the seats to hide from the world forever.

Despite its focus on a child who is an eternal optimist and who survives indignities to himself and those around him which touch many familiar chords in Irish life, the film is as vicious and cathartic as its sudden and inevitable climax, tearing open the wounds of a young soul plunged into darkness when its happy illusions have been shattered. It is funny all right, but it is also frightening, and not just in the nudge nudge wink wink manner of the postmodern horror film. It deals with deep rooted subconscious terrors, and their ferocious explosion into the reality of other people's lives after years of festering in one young boy's.

Young Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) enjoys a fantastical childhood filled with stories of mythical pasts and futures. On one hand are the wild apaches and alien invasions of comic books and Hollywood movies, and on the other are the stories of his parents' early marital bliss before his father became an alcoholic would-be musician and his mother a suicidal, compulsive house wife. On the radio he hears tales of communist encroachments on the Free World during the Cuban Missile Crisis and on television he sees footage of nuclear explosions. On some level, these things inform his escape into blissful rural idylls of fishing by the river and reading comic books in a secret hideout.

But all the while he watches his family falling to pieces and sees the claustrophobic bleakness of an Irish town racked with superstition, hypocrisy and prejudice. He accepts his fractured world in the knowledge that his best friend Joe shares it with him. He doesn't ignore the imponderable realities which inform the world in which he lives, but he chooses to define what is important to him on his own terms, often to the extent that his internal dialogues with his own adult voice (Stephen Rea) actively contradict his actions.

The only blot on his horizon is snotty returned emigrant Fiona Shaw and her bookish son, whose bourgeois urban world not only offends his peace, but threatens to destroy it. Things finally come to a head when after several increasingly nasty pranks and the death of his mother, Francie's behaviour becomes violent and destructive and he is consigned to the first in a series of institutions. This all but ends his friendship with Joe, who then strikes up with the son of his nemesis. This eventually drives him over the edge. He responds with the fury that only a child can muster and the terrifying depths of savagery which have always lurked under his cheerful exterior.

The film centres on the remarkable performance of 15 year old Owens. Throughout the establishing scenes, there are moments of disturbing violence in his facial expressions, even as he cracks jokes and makes observations which have him christened 'a character' and 'a ticket' by locals. When he finally snaps, he does so with the same cheerful optimism he has demonstrated throughout, and somehow, his story is triumphant and exhilarating. He is likable in the same way Anthony Perkins was irresistibly sympathetic in Psycho. Though he is 'damaged', Francie is a survivor. He is sustained by an inner character which young Owens captures brilliantly. If Stephen Rea is Jordan's more usual alter ego, Owens steps into the dual role of McCabe and Jordan's inner child perfectly.

He is backed up by a terrific cast of familiar faces including Rea, Fiona Shaw, Milo O'Shea, Brendan Gleeson (I Went Down), Rosaleen Linehan (Snakes and Ladders), Gerard McSorley (The Boxer), Gina Moxley (Snakes and Ladders), Sean McGinley, Ardal O'Hanlon and Sinéad O'Connor in a series of hilarious cameos as the Virgin Mary.

Jordan directs with a surrealist's concern for colour and tone, and uses the landscape and townscape to good effect (aided by Adrian Biddle's cinematography). It is a small film which deals with a small community, but its focus is never so narrow that it locates itself within the frames of reference of several more ordinary Irish films (The Playboys, December Bride, Circle of Friends). The story develops in terms of the central character's subjective experience and is ultimately a study of an abnormal mind. It is the kind of film which people identify with even though there is almost nothing in it that they will have actually experienced, at least not at this level of intensity. In short, it is a surrealist film. It places an internal world in opposition with an external one and revels in symbols and associations which may or may not mean something, depending on how you choose to respond to them.

Familiar images leap out and the ingredients are present to construct any number of tales of an Irish life: childhood friendship, youthful fantasies, the presence of religion and the religious, alcoholism, spousal abuse, community gossip, rural/urban divides, etc. But they are not treated with a heavy-handedness which suggests a leaden commentary on any or all of them. The film does not try to explain Francie's actions, it merely shows them in their context and allows you to draw your own conclusions. Its focus is ultimately on a unique individual and his singular response to the challenges life presents to him. This makes the film both personal and universal because of its psychological truth rather than a nostalgic empathy with the character.

There is no question that the film will strike audiences both as charming and funny and as vile and horrifying, and it is testament to the efforts of all concerned that it balances this diversity of tone. Its truths are inner ones, most of which are not reducible to rational explanations. It is not a film about how Ireland produces psychopaths, but about the insanity which lurks beneath any person who tries to cope with the fact that the world is often contradictory, hypocritical, and worst of all, sometimes random and beyond your control. It is closer in spirit to Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures than Jordan's own Michael Collins, though it may be seen equally as a film about Ireland and the Irish people and how they construct their social and political realities based on their perceptions of the past and the present.

It is a satisfying film from the perspective of an Irish cinema, if such a thing exists, because it addresses its world without sentiment but not without landscape, without politics but not without cultural divisions, and most of all it deals with a country which links with the experiences of the outside world (America) in a particular manner which makes them none the less Irish ones. It is not entrenched and introverted despite its internal focus. It cries out with rage and defiance, and does not whine and grumble about injustice. There is no justice here, and no resolution. Even as Francie's adult self is released from his final asylum, he has one last vision of the Virgin Mary, who offers comfort and solace as she has always done, and finds Francie still thinking of Joe.

Fans of Jordan's work will doubtless enjoy it, and the film demonstrates most of his familiar concerns about masculinity, music and the past. The director took an award at the Berlin Film Festival for his work here, and with In Dreams in post-production, it seems that he has survived the ravages of Michael Collins' reception very well and will continue to produce interesting and stimulating works of cinema in the future.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.