Oh, ‘tis glorious to be Irish, to be full of tragic, funny, desperate, rude, wild-hearted stories, and to have filmmaker Neil Jordan on your side! Not the wave-the-flag-and-hoist-a-pint Jordan of Michael Collins, or the straining-for-eroticism interpreter of Interview With the Vampire, but the uncompromising lad who made The Crying Game, Mona Lisa, and, earlier still, the fantastical The Company of Wolves. It’s that Jordan — mordant, witty, adventurous, for whom the psychologically perverse is a welcome visitor and evil always has a place at the table — who returns to direct The Butcher Boy (Warner Bros.), from Patrick McCabe’s extraordinary and disturbing 1993 novel of the same name. And the match has inspired Jordan’s best movie yet.
This unsentimental take on miserable Irish childhood — right up there in the literature of colorful Gaelic heartbreak with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha — centers on 12-year-old Francie Brady, played by then-13-year-old newcomer Eamonn Owens. Francie, a raucous, red-haired, Our Gang-faced devil, lives in poverty in rural Ireland in the 1960s: Television informs the locals that JFK presides in the White House, the Cuban Missile Crisis is at hand, and a nuclear showdown could lead to global destruction. But on Francie’s own planet, nuclear family meltdown looms much closer to home. His manic spirits are an attempt to drown out the sorrows of his parents: Da (Jordan regular Stephen Rea, with that sad face made for colorful heartbreak) is a frightening drunk; Ma (Aisling O’Sullivan) eventually crumbles into madness. In his eyes (and the film is told from Francie’s pinwheeling point of view), the neighbors are unhelpful — and, in the case of his nemesis, the pretentious busybody Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), unbearably cruel.
Francie’s manias express themselves ”harmlessly” at first — complicated fantasy play with his best friend, rude denunciation of Mrs. Nugent, misdemeanors like that. But slowly, almost casually, as he becomes more emotionally untethered, as his family falls apart, as friends and religion fail him, Francie’s own mental health slips the surly bonds of sanity, leaving comedy behind. By the time he descends into grotesque violence (and make no mistake, the climax is brutal), the inevitability of Francie’s self-destruction — how could we have missed it from the outset? — is as shocking as the havoc he wreaks. (In the face of such mesmerizing horror, onetime Pope insulter Sinead O’Connor’s participation as Francie’s twisted vision of the Virgin Mary is the smallest of tempests; besides, she’s lovely in the role, and just the Lady a feverish Irish kid might imagine.)
To further chill and exhilarate, cinematographer Adrian Biddle (Thelma & Louise) gives The Butcher Boy a deceptively quaint look, while Jordan (who co-wrote the screenplay with McCabe) coaxes from Owens a performance of booming artlessness. Twined together with Rea’s fine-tuned narration (in addition to playing Da, he’s the voice-over viewpoint of the older Francie and appears as him, too), this butcher boy cuts moviemaking conventions to shreds. The result is bloody genius. A