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The Boy With the Thorn in His Side

From its very first frame, Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy whooshes us inside the rollicking, deranged world of twelve-year-old Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens). Francie is a redheaded rascal who lives with his alcoholic "Da" (Stephen Rea) and screw-loose mother (Aisling O'Sullivan) in a small town in a part of northern Ireland in the early '60s.

With his one buddy Joe (Alan Boyle), he wreaks havoc on a neighbor, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), and her son Philip (Andrew Fullerton). We follow the zigzag of his hectic odyssey as he's trundled off to reform school and asylums and back again to his hometown. What is so remarkable and disturbing about the film, adapted by Jordan (1986's Mona Lisa, 1992's The Crying Game) and Patrick McCabe from McCabe's amazing 1992 novel, is how we're lifted up by Francie's mania. Only at the end do we realize we've been pulled along by a budding sociopath -- a very buoyant sociopath.

But Francie is no "type"; he's too vibrant for that. No doubt he will be compared to Malcolm McDowell's Alex in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), and in the first real acting he has ever done, young Eamonn Owens certainly has some of McDowell's all-out ferocity. But Kubrick turned everybody except Alex into a stooge, so it was disconcertingly easy to get behind the thug's stompings. Jordan doesn't play that game; even the lowliest person in The Butcher Boy bursts with life. The film is about as far from a case history as you can get. Even though we see the kind of family Francie comes out of, we can't really pin his actions on his parents.

It's tempting to do so. Near the beginning, Francie's doomed mother, whom he adores, returns home from an asylum and proceeds to frantically bake hundreds of cakes for a small party; his abusive father, a failed trumpet player, is so bleary-eyed he can't even time the swings he takes at his wife and son. But Jordan wants us to see Francie's parents as folkloric characters in the boy's heightened mindscape. Through Francie's eyes everyone seems heightened. The movie, drawing deeply on McCabe's novel -- with its antecedents in James Joyce and William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney -- has a very Irish quality: an enraptured feeling for the ravishments of the everyday, and an awareness of how tragedy is coiled inside the comic. The soundtrack rolls with the thick lilt of the language.

The Butcher Boy never lets up. We've become accustomed to Hollywood movies that just throw one damn thing after another at us to keep us from being bored. The relentlessness of The Butcher Boy is of an entirely different order: It's never exhausting, because Francie's spirit is so profoundly captivating. He is the scamp enshrined in the culture of boyhood -- an Irish Huckleberry Finn. Until he goes bad.

But the bad that comes out of him is all of a piece with the good -- that's why he's so captivating. Francie isn't a "dark" version of childhood; he's more like an extension of all boyish avidities. He takes things to a murderous, frenetic extreme, but there's no vast calculation in what he does; he seems to be almost preconscious in his impulsiveness to commit mayhem -- or do good. When he's placed inside a Catholic boys' reformatory, he convinces the priests that he sees Our Lady (Sinead O'Connor), and he really does. It's not just a scam, though it has the effect of one -- Francie in his white altar boy robes is excused from heavy labor.

Francie has a wheedling, full-throttled charm, but he's too much for most people; he's doesn't try to be likable. He's constantly being blindsided by life because he's not aware of the effect he has on everybody. The deepest hurt in the movie is Joe's estrangement from him. We can see it coming; Joe is too responsible a hellion to follow Francie up his bloody byways. Impulsive as he is, Francie still wants the good things in his life to remain the same, but Joe has moved beyond him -- into a world where one must be held accountable. Francie even has a fierce nostalgia for his father; when Da expires and becomes a moldering corpse in the parlor, Francie refuses to notify anybody. He still wants him around.

The movie is set up to contrast Francie's raging inner life with the humdrum cities and townships he inhabits. But Jordan also has an acute feeling for the beauties of the Irish landscape and its inhabitants. The only targets of derision here are the people with airs, like Mrs. Nugent. Her home furnishings are the purest middle-class kitsch, so there's a kind of poetic justice in the way Francie trashes them. But Jordan is no scourge; he even reserves an affectionate wink for the Nugents' tastes. Throughout The Butcher Boy he works in pop-schlock imagery: We see the townspeople watching The Lone Ranger and The Fugitive and fifth-rate John Agar sci-fi movies on TV; the soundtrack features '50s and '60s croon faves like "Oh My Papa" and a zithery version of "Mack the Knife"; the boys hoard Green Lantern comics. Jordan isn't making some heavy-going statement about the zombie-fying effects of pop culture. On the contrary, he recognizes pop's sustaining energy. These shows and songs are what people watched and listened to in these towns; they probably didn't take them any more (or less) seriously than we do.

When Jordan shows us JFK on the tube at the time of the Cuban missile crisis or shots of A-bomb explosions, he's not really positioning us to recognize the dawn of the atomic age -- or the TV age (though that's implicit in what he shows us). He's after something loamier: By observing a trio of the town's Catholic women huddled in front of JFK's image on the TV screen, we're participating in the adoration of a new saint. Kennedy has passed beyond pop icon into the realm of Catholic icon.

Jordan has the rich wit to make the religious iconography in this movie rapturously funny. The scenes between Francie and Our Lady are both incandescently beautiful and a goof. (She has an unaccountably foul mouth.) Jordan directs like a lapsed Irish Catholic who still relishes the savories of religious fervor. It's in his bones. His passion is more with the sinners than the saints. Maybe that's why Francie, with all his unheeding vitality, is the star of the show. He's the worst of the lot; and yet given his life force, he's also the best. This kid can reach the ecstatic faster than the truly devout. It's a great cosmic joke.

The Butcher Boy.
Directed by Neil Jordan. Written by Jordan and Patrick McCabe, based on McCabe's novel. Starring Eamonn Owens, Alan Boyle, Stephen Rea, and Fiona Shaw.

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Peter Rainer

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