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.

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