Starring: Eamonn Owens, Alan Boyle, Fiona Shaw, Stephen Rea, Sinead O'Connor, Aisling O'Sullivan, Brendan Gleeson
Rated R for Language and Violence
With a title like "The Butcher Boy," one could be excused for believing it to be a horror movie about a kid. While the film's central character is certainly a terror in his small Irish town, it's a misguided assumption. In reality, "The Butcher Boy" is a coming-of-age story laced with some black comedy. It's a pretty simple story, but telling it effectively requires a defter touch than Neil Jordan possesses (at least in this case).
Francie Brady (Owens) is the walking definition of a "problem child." He's a bully to Phillip Nugent (Andrew Fullerton), the son of his nemesis, Mrs. Nugent (Shaw), has a foul mouth, and will lie to and con just about anyone he can. Considering his home life, with his father (Rea), "the best drinker in town," and mother (O'Sullivan), whose sanity hangs on by a thread, it's understandable. Francie's life becomes a Greek tragedy, and he will have to find a way to survive in 1963 Ireland.
Asking an audience to sympathize with a dislikable protagonist is always difficult, but it can be done ("Cruel Intentions," which I watched again recently, is a good example). Francie is certainly not a very likable character, but it's clear that Jordan wants us to like him. It's a tough sell, and that's mainly due to the performance of Eamonn Owens in his film debut. He's not bad, per se. Owens has plenty of fire and energy, but it's not effectively channeled by Jordan. There are scenes where he manages to give off the right vibes, but those are few.
Owens is present in every scene, and the other cast members just orbit him, wandering in and out depending on where he is and what he is doing. Alan Boyle plays Francie's only friend Joe, Fiona Shaw plays the haughty Mrs. Nugent (Shaw allows the audience to see why Francie hates her, but understand her point-of-view), Stephen Rea is both frightening and resigned as the alcoholic Da, and Aisling O'Sullivan shows the light and dark of a woman with bipolar disorder. Sinead O'Connor adds warmth as the Virgin Mary (the irony of casting her is delicious, especially because she gives a good performance). A number of Irish character actors also appear in various supporting roles, including Brendan Gleeson, Sean McGinley, John Kavanagh (all three of whom starred in "Braveheart"), Ian Hart, and Gerard McSorley.
The problem with the film is that I'm not sure that Neil Jordan knows what he wants his film to be. A satire? A drama? A black comedy? A tragedy? A coming-of-age story? There are attempts at all of them, and more, and the result is a mishmash of tones, ideas and various other stuff that doesn't gel. Much of what Jordan does is in direct conflict with something else. For example, he wants Francie to be three-dimensional while still being the product of satire. Note, I won't claim that it is impossible for a visionary director to blend these tones and genres, but Jordan isn't it.
One of the more interesting things that Jordan does is have the narrator (Francie as an adult) occasionally speak to Francie. It's certainly innovative (the only other movie that I can think of that did something so unusual with an off-camera narrator was "The Opposite of Sex," where Christina Ricci's character spoke directly to the audience and had some fun at their expense), but it doesn't happen often enough and isn't used effectively. This, along with the scenes with the Virgin Mary, are his attempts to get the audience inside Francie's head, but it's only halfway successful.
What the film does have is a sense of place. Neil Jordan grew up in Ireland, and that's probably why the setting and the feel of the town feel so real. But without a central character that the audience can form some sort of connection to and a lack of focus, "The Butcher Boy" is only good for making you want to go to Ireland.