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With: Eamonn Owens, Sean McGinley, Peter Gowen, Alan Boyle, Andrew Fullerton, Fiona Shaw, Aisling O'Sullivan, Stephen Rea, Ian Hart
Written by: Neil Jordan, Patrick McCabe, based on a novel by Patrick McCabe
Directed by: Neil Jordan
MPAA Rating: R for language and violence
Running Time: 109
Date: 07/13/1997

The Butcher Boy (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Off to the Garage

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Some movies are described as "roller coaster rides", but I think that's meant as a reaction for your stomach. The Butcher Boy is a roller-coaster ride for your brain. It's the most alive and deeply-felt movie I've seen in 1998, and that's thanks to the endlessly extraordinary performance by 11-year old Eamonn Owens as Francie Brady, the Butcher Boy. It may be the finest performance I've seen by any actor, in any film, this decade. I'm secretly hoping that Owens will win Best Actor come Oscar time, even though it's a long shot. The Oscars often play it too safe for a brilliant movie like this.

The Butcher Boy is directed by Neil Jordan, who adapted it with Patrick McCabe from McCabe's novel. It's a wild, unhinged horror of a movie, plunging us directly into the depths of childhood anguish, but doing it with an unbridled joy and a sick sense of humor.

Francie Brady starts out as a normal boy. He has a best friend, Joe (Alan Boyl), and they read comic books, steal apples, and hide out in a secret fort by the river. Unfortunately, Francie's mother (Aisling O'Sullivan) goes mad, and must be sent to "the garage" as Francie puts it, for "repairs". As Francie is a... er... "lively" child, he soon gets into trouble and gets shipped off to a special religious school. While he's at the school, Francie has visions of seeing the Virgin Mary (played shockingly by singer Sinead O'Connor). Afterwards, a priest becomes... er... "aroused" by Francie. By way of a bribe to keep quiet about this, Francie is sent back home again. During this time, though, his best friend has found a new best friend. The neighborhood busybody, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) has branded Francie a "bad influence", and no one is allowed to play with him. Francie's dear old Da, played by Stephen Rea (in many other Jordan films including The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire), becomes increasingly drunk, and eventually passes away in his easy chair.

After an hour of the film has gone by, you slowly begin to realize that this is serious stuff. Before this we laugh as Francie's joyous antics, but then we are shocked into silence as he gets more and more out of hand, directing his attacks at Mrs. Nugent. The thing that makes The Butcher Boy so perfect is that we can truly feel Francie's anguish. We get so much inside him that, when the turning point comes, it's as if we've been suddenly hatched, and can now see the world from the outside. We follow Francie to the bitter end, because we've been made to care so much more than we ever thought we could. (If only Jordan had been able to make Interview with the Vampire with this much energy and darkness.)

My one small complaint about the movie is that, in the end, Francie becomes rehabilitated. There is an epilogue that has Stephen Rea playing the grown-up Francie, older, wiser, sadder. I just wish that The Butcher Boy had gone all the way, and burned out instead of fading away, following in the footsteps of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, with its ground-breaking freeze-frame ending. Nonetheless, I was so thoroughly moved and excited and disturbed by this movie, that I highly recommend it anyway. Don't miss it for the world.

DVD Details: At last! Warner Home Video makes up for the nearly ten-year gap and releases a 2007 DVD with deleted scenes and a Neil Jordan commentary track. Jordan is not the most interesting commentator, but it's great to finally have this movie available.

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