February 8, 1999 -- "The Butcher Boy" is a relentlessly depressing tale of poverty, alcoholism, abuse, suicide, class hatred and murder. Set in Ireland during the time of the Cuban Missile crisis, I wondered why director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game," "Interview With the Vampire," "In Dreams") didn't throw in a few gun battles between the Protestants and Catholics to add a little levity to this dreary tale.
At the center of the tale is a remarkable performance by Eamonn Owens as the Butcher, Francie Brady. This kid has real energy and he's fascinating to watch. Maybe he'll get an Oscar for this performance. Anna Paquin got one and this kid can act circles around her. He's charming, but with a real scary edge to his character.
Francie grows up in a very dysfunctional family with an alcoholic, abusive father and a suicidal mother. His one friend is Joe (played by Eamonn's real life friend Alan Boyle). The two are like brothers, inseparable. Then, one day, Francie and Joe cross paths with the wealthy and nasty Mrs. Nugent (played by veteran actress Fiona Shaw) when they steal apples from her.
Mrs. Nugent goes out of her way to publicly humiliate Francie's mentally fragile mother by screaming that she and her whole family are nothing but pigs. Francie begins to plot his revenge against Mrs. Nugent, which soon escalates to violence against Nugent's son. At this point, Joe lets Francie know that he has gone too far and tells him to stop. He does not, and the escalation continues until he is sent to reform school and finally to a mental institution.
During Francie's absence, Joe becomes friends with the Nugent boy and the two eventually go away to college. Francie, of course, has no such opportunity. Not only that, but Francie loses both his mother and father. Rejected by his best friend, he also finds out the awful truth about his mother and father. Completely isolated, Francie launches into several final, desperate acts which result in even more tragedy.
This film is a fine example of the existential world view. There is no morality. The institutions of religion are portrayed as hopelessly corrupt and ineffectual. There is no God, but Francie does see a vision of Our Lady (none other than Sinéad O'Connor) who we assume is a manifestation of Francie's psychosis. Francie's life has no meaning other than what he gives it and so it takes on a grotesque meaning indeed. What fun!
"The Butcher Boy" is a unique film. It has comic aspects, but those are more than offset by the relentlessly downbeat story. The main character starts out joyous and carefree, but slips inexorably into depression and madness. With few exceptions, the adults in the story are portrayed as idiots or psychopaths, and this proves what? It proves that the cinematic deck has been stacked to prove a particular point. Neil Jordan is a fine director. He has done a very fine job of crafting a film that is quite depressing and unsatisfying. This film rates a C. For those existentialists and art film lovers out there, you will probably like this a lot better than I did, but I personally can't stand that particular brand of mental constipation.
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