The Butcher Boy
directed by Neil Jordan
(Warner Brothers/Geffen, 1997)

From the moment you hear the slightly skewed version of "Mack the Knife," you know you're in for an offbeat tale of violence and revenge.

But just how syncopated that story will become doesn't sink in until The Butcher Boy is nearly three-quarters over. And by then it's too late: director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) has you hooked harder than the hogs that hang in the butcher boy's slaughterhouse.

On the surface, The Butcher Boy is a story of a boy from a dysfunctional family who comes of age in small-town Ireland in the early 1960s. But unlike Angela's Ashes and other tales of survival, The Butcher Boy is less about overcoming obstacles than about giving in to them. Because unlike Frank McCourt of Angela's Ashes, butcher boy Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) inherits both his father's gift for drinking and his mother's gift for delusion, and eventually the combination proves lethal for everyone.

The trouble begins, or seems to begin, when Mrs. Nugent -- the closest thing Francie's town has to gentry -- calls Francie and his family pigs. Other pre-teen boys might brush off the epithet, but Francie (Eamonn Owens), revels in it -- rolls in it, you might say, like a pig.

That seemingly harmless incident begins Francie's years-long vendetta against Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) and her son, Philip, that ends only with the untimely death of Mrs. Nugent at Francie's hands.

But if Francie is a victimizer, he's also a victim, and that's what makes The Butcher Boy such a complex and fascinating film. It's hard not to feel for Francie, even when you hate him most. He's a bright lad, and he's ready to thumb his nose at both church and state when they get out of line, which is often.

Jordan shows us Francie in a church home for boys, where he's literally thrown in a cell for knowing too much about his elders, and in a mental hospital, where modern psychiatry (circa 1962) has more to do with electricity than empathy.

On an even sadder note, we see Francie sabotage his one hope for a better life, his friendship with Joe Purcell (Alan Boyle), who bails out when Francie can't stop taking his vendetta one step too far.

Ultimately, The Butcher Boy becomes one of the most terrifying films in recent years, if only because it takes such a balanced look inside an unbalanced mind, set in the context of the nuclear nightmare and Cold War politics that helped fuel Francie's personal crusade. No stake can kill this vampire; no bullet can take out this flesh-eating zombie.

Jordan has created an apt parable for our times: the fact that he's done it with technical prowess that approaches perfection and performances that make us forget it's being acted only make it all the more horrifying.

The Butcher Boy is a rare thing: a film with a clear sense of the present danger and no pat solutions. It's a vision that's hard to look at, but just as hard to ignore.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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