Billy Wilder once admitted that he had been moved to tears by The Best Years of Our Lives, a film about returning World War II vets directed by his fellow central European ex-patriot, William Wyler. “Of course,” Wilder was quick to point out. “I laugh at Hamlet.”
There’s a tissue paper thin line between comedy and tragedy. What might seem funny to some is likely to appall others. Most people love the Loony Toons, with the Coyote falling over a cliff and Elmer Fud getting dynamite shoved down his pants. Yet many people cringe at South Park, a show that often depicts violence as graphic and happily attacks any subject one can think of, no matter how taboo. When asked if there is any subject that they won’t touch, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone said there wasn’t. Their rationale being that if you pull punches on one target, why didn’t you do it with the other? Who decides what’s fair game and what’s taboo? Some may claim that certain jokes are in poor taste, but as our friend Billy Wilder once said, condemning something for being in poor taste is just another form of censorship.
The Butcher Boy is a film adaptation of a novel by Patrick McCabe about a young boy growing up in Ireland in the early sixties and chronicles his decent into sheer madness. Along the way we are treated to episodes of bullying, child abuse, spousal abuse, suicide, alcoholism, pedophilia and finally, murder. Yet the film is wickedly funny and at it’s center is a demented hero who could very well be described as a pre-adolescent Richard III, a lunatic who can’t help but to win our sympathy, if not pity.
When we first meet our hero Francie Brady (Edmond Owens) he’s laying in a hospital ward, wrapped head to toe in bandages. “Back when I was a boy, maybe twenty, or thirty, or forty years ago,” his adult self, who narrates the film, says. “I was living in a small town.” We see Francie as a ginger headed boy with a stocky build, dressed in a blazer and knickers and playing out in the woods with his best friend Joe Purcell (Alan Boyle). They dress up as Apaches and play cowboys and Indians. They lay around in a makeshift fort, tell the fish in the river to fuck off and ask the great questions of life, such as:
Francie: Joe, what would you do if you had a million-trillion dollars?
Joe: I’d buy a million-trillion Flashbars (referring to a candy he’s eating).
“I suppose that of all the awful things I’ve done, the apples was the first.” This refers to an incident where Joe and Francie sneak into the yard of the Nugent family and steal some apples from their tree. Philip (Andrew Fullerton), the young Nugent boy who’s the same age as Joe and Francie enters the yard. A short, bespecled kid who walks with a slight hunch, he’s an instant target for bullies, and Joe and Francie gang up on him, stealing his stack of comic books. This arouses the ire of Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw). Adult Francie’s voice over tells us that she had lived in England for a time and came back with a high and mighty attitude. She goes to Francie’s parents to complain about him (tellingly, she doesn’t go to Joe’s parents). She proceeds to attack Francie’s mother and his alcoholic father, calling them both pigs.
Well, Francie’s father (Stephen Rea, a frequent collaborator of the films director, Neil Jordan) is an alcoholic. An out of work trumpeter, he returns home from the pub at three in the afternoon, well lubricated. “My Dad was one for the drinking,” says adult Francie as his Dad takes off his belt and beats Francie. Later, father and son are sitting next to each other on the couch, watching The Lone Ranger as Dad plays the William Tell Overture on his trumpet. When the set goes on the fritz he gets up, kicks in the TV screen, and plays the traditional funeral march.
Francie’s mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) doesn’t seem to be in very good shape either. One day Francie comes home to see her standing on the kitchen table with a chair in front of her and a rope in her hand. She gets carted off to an asylum, which Francie refers to as the garage (pronounced gar-idge by him).
Francie: Joe, what does that mean, a breakdown?
Joe: That’s when they haul the car off to the garage.
It’s rough having a mentally ill mother, but Francie is able to joke about it. He stops into the local grocery store where he meets a trio of ladies. He has no trouble charming them by joking about his mother’s breakdown and alluding to her as a faulty automobile.
Ma comes home shortly before Christmas, though she’s hardly cured. She spends almost every spare minute baking cakes and buns. “Is that what they do in the garage, turn you into a bloody cake machine?” asks Francie. Later his Uncle Alo (Ian Hart) arrives for Christmas. He grew up in the town but has gone to London and has become quite successful. Yet for drunk old Dad, that’s something to resent. All through the Christmas party Dad gets drunker and drunker. When the guests leave he turns on Alo, who quickly departs. Dad decides to take his frustrations out on his wife. Francie decides that he now must be “off on his travels.”
Francie hitchhikes to Dublin, where he’s never been. He stops by a luncheonette and swipes some cash when the matron isn’t looking. He then goes to the local cinema, buys a ton of refreshments and watches a B-horror film (being set in the early sixties at the height of the arms race, the fear of nuclear Armageddon plays a key role in the film). On the DVD commentary Neil Jordan talks about how he remembers that there were kids who weren’t afraid of authority, punishment or getting hurt and that he was always afraid of them. I for one was a pretty timid child who was terrified of getting in trouble. I know where he’s coming from.
Inevitably, Francie gets homesick. He buys a small toy Irish cottage for his Mom and heads home. When he gets there he finds that there’s a funeral procession in progress. He then learns it’s for his Ma. Francie’s running off pushed her over the edge.
The kindly town priest comforts Francie. His inebriated Dad isn’t so charitable. “They found her down by the river,” he tells his son. “It’s bad enough that you put her there, did you have to ruin her funeral too?”
Dad isn’t the only one who blames Francie for his Mom’s death. He overhears the dreaded Mrs. Nugent noting how he put his mother in her grave. Well this won’t do. With the battle lines drawn, Francie proceeds to terrorize poor little Philip. He leads him into a barn and begins to attack him. Joe intervenes. He might have picked on Philip but he knows when Francie is going too far (“why did you let me down, Francie?”) He then cuts both his and Francie’s hand. They swear by “the blood of the Apache” that they will be blood brothers ‘till the end of time.
A short while later Joe and Francie are playing by the river when Mrs. Nugent sends her two brothers to teach Francie a lesson. Sending two grown men to take care of a bullying child might seem extreme. When one of the brothers holds Francie’s head under water, Francie plays possum. That scares them off.
Ah, but he’s not done with the Nugent’s. He heads to their house and starts harassing them “Your brothers, they gave me a right going over they did.” He tells Mrs. Nugent. Francie becomes more and more intense and, in a nod to Eugene Ionesco, starts acting like a pig. He gets down on all fours and begins snorting away with a startling sense of manic abandonment. He also sees that Mrs. Nugent has a kitchen full of cakes, just like his mother was baking. And so, when the Nugent’s head out, Francie breaks in. He proceeds to eat some of the cake and smash the ones he doesn’t eat. He writes the word “pig” all over the walls with Mrs. Nugent’s lipstick (a nod to the Manson family, I wonder?) and then, again impersonating a pig, decides to defecate on her floor. Mrs. Nugent arrives just as Francie is doing the deed. His response to her homecoming is priceless.
Francie is then sent to a reform school. This being Ireland, it’s run by the Catholic Church. The Deacon who runs the school (played by the always excellent Brendan Gleason) seems to be a stern but caring cleric. Francie actually gets along well in the school. He manages to win over the other students with his sense of humor and knowledge of American gangster shows. He wins over the Deacon by volunteering to become an alter boy. Later, he finds a way to get out of manual labor by claiming that he’s having visions of the Virgin Mary. Eventually, he actually DOES see the Blessed Mother.
And who did Neil Jordan get to play the mother of God? Why none other then Sinead O’Connor. That’s right, that controversial Irish singer who just five years earlier tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live and has been an outspoken critic and rebel of the Catholic Church, even becoming an ordained priest via a rouge Catholic sect. Jordan insists that he didn’t cast her for shock value. He simply thought that she resembled the Virgin Mary. Well, she does, when she’s wearing a blue shawl and a wig.
An elder priest, Father Sullivan (veteran Irish actor Milo O’Shea) becomes particularly interested in Francie’s visions. He invites Francie into his office where he asks the boy to tell him about his vision. “So there I am telling him the story,” says the adult Francie. “When all of the sudden his hand starts jiggling in his pocket.” Later, Father Sullivan dresses Francie up in a bonnet. We all know where this is going. He then makes the mistake of asking Francie questions about his mother. This sets Francie off into a murderous rage. Father Sullivan is last seen getting into a car where he will no doubt eventually be sent to another parish. The Deacon, meanwhile, is trying to find a way to keep Francie quiet. He offers to send him back home.
He returns to the town. Jordan isn’t clear as to how much time has lapsed (a flaw if you ask me) but it’s clear that things have changed.
Francie and Joe again hang out at their fort, but Joe seems to have grown up a bit. He has to go home to write essays for school. While Francie was away Joe wrote to him. In the letter he said that Philip Nugent wasn’t such a bad guy. He also said that Philip won a goldfish at a carnival and gave it to him. At first this bothered Francie, but now he assures Joe that he’s over it. Alas, Joe doesn’t seem to remember anything about a goldfish.
Later, the two boys are again down by the river. Once again, Mrs. Nugent sends her brothers to beat up Francie as revenge for his previous vandalism. Yet Francie is a pretty tough kid. He picks up a rock and proceeds to fight back. In the heat of his fight with the Nugent brothers, one of them asks Joe “what are you hanging around with the likes of him for?” Francie asks what they meant by that. Joe runs away. Francie later learns that Joe and Philip have become school chums.
At that time in Ireland it was common for working class kids to join the workforce after grammar school if they didn’t seem to have much of an academic future. Francie gets a job in a butcher shop, a job for which he has a bit too much zeal.
Alas, he can’t stop obsessing over Joe. One night when he pays a call on Joe Mr. Parcell tells him that he’s not home. As Francie leaves, he sees Joe’s shadow in the upstairs window. Weren’t Francie and Joe blood brothers? For almost everyone a painful part of growing up is when you and your childhood friends grow apart. Francie, however, can’t handle it. He slowly becomes more and more unhinged.
Since his return, he and his father have been getting along much better. Unfortunately his Dad’s drinking and smoking has taken its toll on his health and he grows sicker and sicker. Eventually he passes out on the couch and never wakes up. Before long the house is filling up with flies. Yet Francie doesn’t seem to realize that his Dad has died. Eventually, the local doctor (John Kavanagh) find out that Francie is living with a decaying corps. He breaks into the house with the aid of the police and sedates Francie.
At this point we are treated to a wonderful fantasy sequence. Francie meets up with Joe just before an atomic bomb goes off. The two friends are reunited but they’re the last two people on earth. They walk through the town, which has been incinerated. He sees the charred remains of the townsfolk, but they’ve been turned into pigs. Just then he sees a figure on horseback riding into view. The figure appears to be a priest, but he has the head of a bug-eyed alien!
When Francie comes to he’s in the garage, i.e. nut house. We see a montage as Francie receives electro shock therapy, tests the patience of the doctor and, in a nod to One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, watches his fellow inmates act out an imaginary football game.
Eventually Francie decides to break out. Again, Neil Jordan could have been clearer as to how much time has lapsed. When he arrives back in the town he learns that Joe and Philip are away at preparatory school. Francie travels to the school at night and breaks into the dormitory, looking for Joe. He wakes up the entire floor. The house master summons Joe, who admits that he knows Francie but says that they’re not friends. With that, Francie completely loses it.
Upon his return the town is in frenzy. Seems that someone had a vision of the Virgin Mary and the town folks think she might show up again. Francie has seen the Virgin Mary enough times already. He instead goes to the butcher shop; retrieves the butchers tool belt, then heads over to Mrs. Nugent’s. When she comes home, he grabs her and holds a stun gun up to her head. “Don’t worry Mrs. Nugent. You’ve won. Joe’s gone.” He then stuns her and proceeds to go all butcher boy on her.
As horrific as this may sound, it actually descends into such sheer lunacy you can’t help but to laugh (well, I couldn’t). Francie buries Mrs. Nugent’s body under a compost heap. Then one of the ladies in the town goes to pay a call on Mrs. Nugent. She finds that the house looks like a slaughterhouse and that Francie has again written “pig” all over the wall, this time in blood. As she runs out screaming the townspeople think she’s seen the Madonna. They all run into Mrs. Nugent’s house, only to get a most unwelcome surprise.
A protégé of John Boreman (Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory), Neil Jordan first gained international recognition for The Crying Game, for which he received an Oscar for his screenplay. He has also directed Michael Collins, In Dreams, The Good Thief, The Brave One and was the executive producer of the TV series The Borgias. His greatest commercial success came with the film version of Interview with a Vampire starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. That film was produced by record mogul David Geffen, who also produced The Butcher Boy. A low budget film, it only cost a million dollars to make. The film was released in Ireland in 1997. Before it’s U.S. release there was a horrible school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas. This resulting in Warner Brothers pulling the number of screens they planned to show it on and it thus received a very anemic release.
Since that time, school shootings seem to have become the norm in this country. Some blame this epidemic on our countries lack of gun control. Others claim that it’s way too difficult for the mentally ill to gain access to proper treatment. I for one think it’s a combination of both. Gun control opponents will point out that there are other ways for psychopaths to kill their victims. This is true. Francie uses a stun gun on Mrs. Nugent, but not an actual firearm. Still, a semi automatic weapon makes mass murder a lot easier.
Getting back to the movie – I mentioned that Neil Jordan has trouble with the films continuity. We see the seasons change but it’s still not always clear how much time has passed during the duration of the film. In the novel Francie aged from age nine to fifteen. Jordan could have cast different actors as Francie, but that would have deprived Eamonn Owens of his masterful performance. A non-professional actor recruited from the region where The Butcher Boy was filmed, Owens has continued to act, most notably in the poorly received film version of Angela’s Ashes. Alas, he has never achieved stardom. What a shame. His performance as Francie Brady is one for the ages.
Another thing that is brilliant about The Butcher Boy is its first person narration, provided by Stephen Rea who plays the father. I’ll admit to having a love/hate relationship with voice over narration. There are times when I think it works marvelously, as in Sunset Boulevard, A Clockwork Orange and Goodfellas. More often then not though, I think it’s a crutch that screenwriters and directors use. This is particularly true in literary adaptations. An author can write an internal monologue for his characters but on film I want to see what’s going on. A close up or gesture can tell us far more about what’s going on in someone’s mind then paragraphs of narration.
The use of voice over in The Butcher Boy is simply wonderful. It doesn’t give us that much information. The voiceover could arguably be dropped and you’d understand what was going on. As in Goodfellas, the voice over is used more like music, beautifully capturing the verbal cadences of the character, thrusting the action forward and even from time to time misdirecting us (voice over says something and the opposite actually happens). Also, the uses of Irish slang is beautiful. Some of it might be a little hard for American ears to fully grasp, but so what? That gives you a reason to see it again.
Again, The Butcher Boy isn’t for everyone. Some people need both cream and sugar in their coffee. But if you sometimes like yours black then The Butcher Boy is a must see.