Saturday, September 17, 2011

#116: The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan, 1997)

Irish director Neil Jordan is primarily known for his thrillers and dramas (The Crying Game, Mona Lisa, The End of the Affair, Michael Collins), but he's no stranger to horror. His second film, The Company of Wolves, was an offbeat werewolf story, two of his director-for-hire Hollywood assignments were horror films (Interview with the Vampire and In Dreams), his fourth film, High Spirits, was a horror-comedy, and he's working on a vampire movie that will be released next year. Oddly, his horror films lack the leanness and darkness of his best work, and his thrillers and dramas tend to be stronger, more personal films (excepting The Company of Wolves).

The Butcher Boy stands out by combining most of what Jordan excels at into a single entity. Here is a film that skillfully blends disparate genres and tones into a cohesive, unified work, held together by an amazing performance from a then-13-year-old Eamonn Owens. Adapted from Patrick McCabe's novel, The Butcher Boy is at once a dark comedy, kitchen-sink drama, surrealist nightmare, criminal-on-the-run thriller, boyhood coming-of-age story, and charismatic anti-hero fable, with an eye-grabbing comic book color palette and elements of horror, apocalyptic sci-fi, and Catholic fantasy. A film with all these competing elements could easily fall apart, but Jordan skillfully weaves them together.

Eamonn Owens plays Francie Brady, a small-town, red-haired Irish boy with a combustible home life. His father (Stephen Rea) was a promising musician once but is a severe alcoholic who bounces between affectionate love and explosive violence. His mother (Aisling O'Sullivan) is mentally unstable and emotionally fragile. He has one close friend, Joe. Francie is a volatile cocktail of his parents, a swirling blend of charisma, pain, intelligence, and psychosis. He's so hard to dislike, so smart and funny and wounded and determined, that you root for him even as his behavior becomes increasingly disturbing and violent. Francie lies, manipulates, bullies, steals, vandalizes, assaults, and eventually murders, but he has us in his pocket the whole time. We like him and we like the bad things he does.

Narrated by the adult Francie, The Butcher Boy surrounds us with Francie's point of view, his unusual slang and speech patterns, his humor, his sadness. We're in this boy's mind and he's in ours. His rich fantasy world is inextricably tied into his everyday life. The adult narrator Francie carries on conversations with the onscreen boy Francie, Communist nuclear bombs drop on the town, people turn into pigs, fly-headed aliens take over human bodies, and the Virgin Mary makes multiple appearances. (She's played by a hard-to-recognize Sinead O'Connor.) As the tragedies and punishments and confinements and betrayals pile up, Francie focuses his hate and rage and sorrow on a neighbor, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), a self-satisfied moralist who looks down on the Bradys. Francie bullies her son Phillip, but his real target is Mrs. Nugent and her tight-lipped disapproval. Francie's real and fantasy lives converge in an explosive finale involving Mrs. Nugent and small-town religious apocalyptic hysteria brought on by the Bay of Pigs crisis. Pigs, aliens, the atomic bomb, and the Virgin Mary make for a rich combination of images.

The Butcher Boy is a film bursting with energy, from its opening comic-book credits to its bloody conclusion. Owens' performance is more than impressive in its complexity and confidence. How can a kid be this good? You believe almost every second, excepting three or four overemphasized line readings. He gets this kid, all of this kid. The wounded, fragile parts. The manipulative, thieving parts. The loneliness. The humor. The intelligence. The dark, dark stuff. The rest of the cast is nearly as good, though Fiona Shaw sometimes emotes a bit too much for my taste. Jordan's direction is complex and confident as well. He takes a sure, even hand with material that could have spilled over into parody or overblown melodrama or distanced coldness. The cinematography from Adrian Biddle is gorgeous. The heightened colors pop off the screen, but aren't too pretty or too artificial. The fantasy elements are skillfully integrated into the story. I like this movie, and I think more people should see it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

#115: Blood of the Beasts (Georges Franju, 1949)

This is the first documentary I've reviewed on this site. The documentary is not a genre that springs immediately to mind when one thinks of horror film subgenres. There's not a lot of crossover there. Real-life horrors don't give you the guilt-free thrills most good horror films provide. Still, I think the material's presentation in this documentary, a weird but highly effective mixture of blunt realism and alternate universe surrealism, makes it an appropriate choice for Rue Morgue's list of alternative horror films. If your food-related ethics are closer to Morrissey's and Chrissie Hynde's, you may be offended by its presence on this particular list, but maybe you won't. Either way, it's worth seeing.

Blood of the Beasts
is only 21 minutes long, but it's bursting with powerful images and ideas. Directed by Georges Franju, who later went on to create the horror classic Eyes Without a Face, with narration by Jean Painleve, director of several acclaimed documentaries about aquatic animals, Blood of the Beasts juxtaposes images of beauty, strangeness, and ordinariness from the outskirts of Paris with the even stranger matter-of-factness of the daily operations of three nearby slaughterhouses. If you have a problem seeing horses, cows, calves, and sheep slaughtered, you're going to have a tough time watching this film. If you have the stomach for it, you're going to see one beautifully made work of art.

As anyone who's seen Eyes Without a Face knows, Franju has an incredible eye. His framing of shots here is like a master class in film art. The elegant composition of images, the knack for capturing odd details, the way he makes ordinary objects look strange and the disturbing look ordinary, all these things contribute to making this film special. Though all these images are taken from the everyday lives of Parisians in 1949, there is a sense that we're witnessing some science fiction universe. A more straightforward documentarian wouldn't have been able to create that feeling.
Franju has stated that his goal in making Blood of the Beasts was to create a piece of realism that didn't betray his surrealist loyalties, and he says his initial inspiration wasn't the slaughterhouses but the nearby Ourcq Canal, which figures in a few of the film's shots. We're introduced to the region near the Canal first. We're still in Paris, but we're on the outskirts. Most of the urban setting is turning into rural fields and countryside as we leave the city, but there's still a lot of activity. Street vendors sell merchandise, children play, couples kiss, the water in the canal moves peacefully under a bridge. Amidst this normalcy, Franju is able to find images of strangeness and surrealism. An abandoned female mannequin stands next to a large phonograph in a field, a table full of radios becomes a lonely collection of abstract shapes, wind blowing through a woman's hair takes on a dreamlike quality as Franju frames the back of her head in closeup.

Soon, we're introduced to the first slaughterhouse, a facility that turns horses into food. For reasons unclear, a bronze statue of a bull sits near the entrance of the slaughterhouse, though only horses are killed there. The camera then shows us a piece of artwork affixed near the top of the facility's entrance, providing one of the film's few laughs (unless you're a seriously disturbed human being): a bust of a prominent-looking older man with the inscription, "In Honor of Emile Decroix, Proponent of Horse Meat." We then see the killing of a horse, the removal of its hooves, the draining of its blood, and the removal of its hide. A photo of the slaughterhouse's owner shows a spitting image of a robber baron caricature (an enormously fat grinning man in a suit with a top hat, pocket watch, and cane) sitting in a chair on the killing floor next to a freshly killed horse.

The film follows this pattern for its remainder, alternating scenes of nearby Paris with two other slaughterhouses, one for cattle and one for sheep. The animal's deaths are presented verite-style, with blunt directness. We see close-cropped Frenchmen, smoking and whistling, doing their work efficiently. One man wears a dirty beret, using it as a barrier between his hair and a cow's hoof as he steadies the carcass with his head to get the proper angle for his blade. The veal preparation might give people the most trouble. Frightened but cute little calves are thrown onto work stations forcefully, then decapitated and dehooved as their blood runs from their necks into buckets. The headless, hoof-free carcasses continue to twitch and jerk spasmodically for a few minutes as the men continue their work. In another scene, a sheep is held by a worker and moved in the direction of the killing floor as the other sheep follow along like, you know, sheep. That sheep's life is spared. His job is to lead the others to their deaths, and he's been nicknamed "the traitor" by the workers. An image of an inside-out cattle carcass with parts hacked off looks like some David Lynch art installation or a creature from a Burroughs Naked Lunch fever dream.

Despite some sympathetic words about the sheep at the film's end, this hardly seems like an animal-rights, pro-vegetarian polemic. I believe Franju wants to show us the strangeness and efficient brutality of our daily life. He's creating a surrealist artwork made up entirely of everyday, realist images. We eat food and use commercial products without thinking of the alternate world that brings it to us. It's a parallel universe, existing alongside us but never intersecting with ours. Our daily lives contain products and foods that come to us through an organized, efficient system of labor that destroys living things, all of which remains out of sight of anyone who doesn't work in those places. Franju shows us what's on the other side of those walls. It is what it is, he says. However and whatever you think about it is up to you. It's not enough to make me quit eating ribs (I'm a Smiths fan, but dinner with Morrissey sounds excruciating), but I will probably think about how those ribs got to my plate more than I did before seeing this film.
Blood of the Beasts is available as an extra on Criterion's edition of Eyes Without a Face.