The incredible Judge Adam Arseneau saves the day with this review! Hey, come back with his arrow!
Based on the best-selling novel by Pat McCabe, Neil Jordan's (The Crying Game, Interview With The Vampire, Mona Lisa) The Butcher Boy is an under-appreciated gem of black comedy. Part Huckleberry Finn, part Naked Lunch, it flew in and out of theaters in 1998 with a minimum of fanfare, but now finally gets its due on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens, Angela's Ashes, The Magdalene Sisters) is a precocious Irish boy living in a small town. His father (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game) is a failed musician and drunkard, and his mother suffers with mental illness. None of this really registers with young Francie, however, since he spends most of his time dressing up and playing Lone Ranger with his friend Joe and causing mischief. They especially enjoy picking on young Phillip, a scrawny local boy, much to the anger of his mother, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone).
Mrs. Nugent sees Francie as a disgusting little boy, a pig, socially and morally bereft of value. Connecting and rationalizing events with deranged logic, Francie sees Mrs. Nugent as the source of all that has gone foul in his life and vows to cause as much trouble for her as possible. As tensions between Francie and the Nugents escalate, and events in Francie's own life deteriorate into tragedy, Francie's grip on reality, already thin, fractures altogether. The results are troublesome for all involved.
The Butcher Boy is one of those films most people vaguely remember but never had the pleasure of seeing. Infamous for its then-controversial casting decision of Sinéad O'Connor as the Virgin Mary, it made limited impact on the theatrical scene in North America. That was a darn shame, because The Butcher Boy is a dark and wild romp through the fantastic mind of a dark and wild child unlike any other.
If ever a film could be called genre-bending, this would be it. Numerous films co-existing in the same space in The Butcher Boy; a childhood drama of ill-fate and circumstance, an imaginative children's fable of metaphor and allegory, and a really messed-up black comedy of murder and debauchery. Like the magic realism of Tideland or Pan's Labyrinth, it is a film steeped in adult circumstance from the whimsical perspective of a child but, in this case, a terribly deranged child. A tricky little film, all wrapped up in sadness, irony, whimsy, and humor as black as crepe at a funeral, The Butcher Boy is as riotously funny as often as it breaks the heart.
Blurring the line between fantasy and reality, memory and myth, Francie exists in a world where reality takes back seat to the whims of a young boy. It is difficult to know for sure how literal we are to take this tale. Elements may be real, exaggerated, or altogether falsified as only a precocious young boy can. Throughout the story, the adult Francie serves as the perpetually unreliable narrator throughout the tale, offering his two cents here and there, glossing over the distressing moments in his young life. In the dual conversations back and forth between old and young, I wouldn't trust the adult's word any more than young Francie's.
With the scathing honesty that can only come from a child's perspective, Jordan tears into all elements of Irish society. In a country where religion is a birthright more than a choice, The Butcher Boy comes out swinging against the institution with uncomfortable (and unintentionally hilarious) elements involving the priesthood and young boys, years before priest-bashing was in fashion. Education gets lambasted up and down through unflattering views of Irish boarding school. Set to the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis and ever-increasing Cold War threats, Francie's life exists between the spaces left between a vivid child's imagination and a rough Irish upbringing. Francie's hallucinations may be the stuff of nightmare, but not just a child's nightmare—his Cold War anxieties ring true with much of public sentiment during the 1960s.
You could call Francie "troubled" the same way the Titanic was troubled by icebergs. Hiding desperately behind bravado and boisterousness, Francie spins wild like a schizophrenic top between charm and cruelty. His world view gets more and more fractured as the story progresses, descending into Cold War paranoia, dementia, and craziness. He is immediately likable, reprehensible, lovable, and loathsome, but amazingly sympathetic, despite his insanity. The staggering tour-de-force performance from young Eamonn Owens is jaw-dropping. He doesn't just hit it out of the park; he hits it out of the park, breaks the bat over his knee, and uses it for kindling to burn the park down.
The film has a great-looking transfer. Nice saturated reds, greens, and blue tones make for a pleasing image; detail levels are tight and black levels are solid. Some dust and print damage here and there is noticeable, but nothing too excessive.
The 5.1 track is expansive and active, with great object placement and ambient detail. Bass response is fair to average, with clear but slightly unbalanced dialogue levels that may require some remote control fiddling to balance the sound to one's liking. The score, like Francie himself, is a glorious mess of hilarity and drama, swaying wildly from light and soothing rock-and-roll to chaotic free jazz, the Lone Ranger theme, and everything in between.
Extras are thin. We get a fairly banal commentary track with director Jordan, three minutes of deleted scenes of poor quality, and a trailer or two. Luckily, the subtitles are rock-solid, in case anyone gets tripped up on the thick Irish accents.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though great to finally see on DVD, the presentation itself is fairly minimal. Jordan's commentary track is the only major feature, but such a fantastic and wild film deserves more treatment.
Oh, what a dark, dysfunctional, and twisted film The Butcher Boy would be, were it not so heavily steeped in black irony. Francie's descent into madness (or a reasonable facsimile of) is so heartfelt and desperate that it tears the heart, but so ludicrously over-the-top as to be hilarious. Do you laugh or cry, mourn or celebrate Francie? Or do you just fear the hell out of him? A combination of all these, truth be told.
A wild and surreal roller coaster of a black comedy, The Butcher Boy is a film so impressive that it only stands to reason that nobody would both to see it. So see it already!
We proudly present this review with the "Not a Bad DVD Review" award.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director/Co-Screenwriter Neil Jordan
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