The Butcher Boy
Director: Neil Jordan. Cast: Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Alan Boyle, Aisling O'Sullivan, Sinéad O'Connor, Pat McCabe, Ian Hart, Andrew Fullerton. Screenplay: Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe (based on the novel by Patrick McCabe).

You can't accuse writer-director Neil Jordan of being unoriginal, even when, as with The Butcher Boy, he is adapting someone else's original work to the screen. Having recently earned Jordan the director's prize at the Berlin Film Festival, The Butcher Boy arrives much-heralded on American shores where the past three Jordan films have met fates wildly different from those predicted for them. The Crying Game became the Oscar-winning, $60 million-earning Little Film That Could, and Interview With the Vampire overcame idiosyncratic casting all the way to the $100 million mark; meanwhile, Michael Collins, Jordan's dream project and a planned Oscar juggernaut two years ago came and went with barely a blip.

The Butcher Boy will be lucky to gross half of Michael Collins' $11 million take, but all this talk of commerce is almost obscenely against the spirit of Jordan's approach to filmmaking, particularly in the case of this eccentric, bold, and uneven project. The Butcher Boy is nothing if not ambitious, seeking to approximate in a Heavenly Creatures sort of way the agitated, hyperreal perspective of a troubled child on the adult world around him, while simultaneously showing us how those very adults view the child himself.

Ultimately, these dual goals are either too diametrically opposed or not sufficiently blended for the project to really work. The film struck me as the cinematic equivalent to Toni Morrison's Paradise, published here earlier this year. Both projects have far-reaching aims and admirable confidence, as well as enough dramatic flair to provoke and engage the audience almost constantly; still, particularly when compared to the emotional raptures achieved by these artists' past triumphs, both Paradise and The Butcher Boy seem distant and cold by comparison. Jordan spends too much time in the film reconciling the two viewpoints from within and without Francie Brady that neither perspective ever gets close enough to who the little boy really is.

All the same, The Butcher Boy boasts a long lists of virtues, chief among which is Eamonn Owens' spitfire performance as Francie, the title character, to whom life has dealt an alcoholic father (Jordan fixture Stephen Rea, seeming here a little hesitant), a mother (Aisling O'Sullivan) heading into a nervous breakdown, a disdainful English neighbor named Mrs Nugent (Fiona Shaw), and a small, devout Irish community who singularly fail to understand Francie's wild flights of imagination, or to control his tendency toward extreme thought and extreme behavior.

Owens preserves a level of energy that could propel a small aircraft across the Irish Sea, but he is also stunningly good at capturing Francie's moments of reflection and despondency, as when his mother leaves home for a sanitorium or, in an equally haunting scene, when she returns home "healthy" only to throw herself into a frenzy of cooking and housewifery far beyond what her family requires. Even when Francie's behavior is no longer precocious or disruptive, but disturbing and even violent, Owens maintains enough of that sense of reflection that Francie never becomes a haywire machine, or an unstoppable goblin. His sadness lies at the heart of all his trouble-making, but he is also to some extent choosing to continue his own descent into—what? "Madness" seems like not quite the right word, though we see the adult Francie in a mental hospital; it seems that he simply becomes far too outsize for his quiet village to absorb.

Ace cinematographer Adrian Biddle (Thelma & Louise) shoots from a whole range of viewpoints, from the grandly panoramic to the impossibly microscopic, gleefully approximating the wild oscillations of attention and preoccupation that Francie experiences throughout the film. Unfortunately, the photography grows less interesting as the film progresses, when bascially everything becomes a tad less interesting than it was, or might have been. Jordan seems to have grown too fond of the impish, harmlessly antagonistic Francie, such that by the time we are required to genuinly worry about his mental health, his about-face into destructive and grave behavior seems a little sudden and contrived.

Other things about Francie's perspective seem a bit fudged. For example, why does he start to hallucinate, in a charming but disconcerting motif, that some adults in the region have giant, Land of the Lost-type insect heads only after he has largely given up his comic/fantasy-book addiction? How does the wise, witty, grown-up and self-aware Francie that narrates the picture grow out of the dithery blank-face he has become by the film's end?

Most crucially, perhaps, at least in parts of the picture, does Jordan intend for us to take Francie's communion with the Virgin Mary and other religious "visitors" as authentic evidence of God's sympathy for Francie, as another in a series of innocent daydreams, or as proof-positive that Francie's mind is not what it was, or should be? (Incidentally, the presence of Sinéad O'Connor as Mary is neither distracting nor involving; as evidenced in this film and in Peter Kosminsky's Wuthering Heights, this fiery singer proves a remarkably un-magnetic screen presence.)

Jordan keeps quiet about many of these thorny questions, which probably makes The Butcher Boy more unpredictable but also renders the picture vaguely unsatisfying. Unresolved riddles are fine in a film except when the project of clarifying Francie's eccentricities seems intended as the project of this one. The writer in Neil Jordan clearly responds to the psychological complexity, the childish humor, and the galloping imagination of this story; the director in Neil Jordan, however, would have done well to decide that Francie at some point becomes sick or merely overwhelmed, if he is puckish or devilish, or if he is dangerous or healed. The romantic answer—that Francie could be all of these things—seems too easy for a film, a star, or a filmmaker that are all so sophisticated and perceptive. The Butcher Boy winds up to be a fairly lean and under-done cut of movie-making meat, but there's enough savory spicing to make the dish appealing. When Jordan serves up again, though, I'll definitely be curious to sample the offerings. Grade: B–

Berlin Film Festival: Best Director; Special Award for Acting (Owens)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Original Score (Elliot Goldenthal; tie)
Satellite Awards: Outstanding New Talent (Owens)
European Film Award: Best Picture (Musical/Comedy); Best Cinematography (Adrian Biddle)

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