I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the bildungsroman tale (a coming-of-age story). Whether it was reading A Separate Peace (and my later realization of all of the homoerotic subtext in the story) in high school, watching Stand By Me when I was much younger, watching Dead Poet’s Society, or any other variation on the coming-of-age tale, I always had something to relate to. I’m 23 years old, but I don’t think I’ve learned all the lessons I need as a grown-up (nor I do I think I ever will). A true and honest portrayal of childhood and the rough road to adulthood that most of us somehow miraculously survive is one of the most visceral experiences you can chronicle. Way too many writers try to water childhood down and focus on the good times, but if someone is able to capture the hell that growing up can be, they’ve tapped into the most universal experience of all. Director Neil Jordan’s (Michael Collins) adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s 1992 novel The Butcher Boy manages to pair brutal honesty and the raw terror of being a child with many moments of laugh out loud comedy and a sudden (but brilliant) swerve into surrealism making it one of the most unique coming-of-age films I’ve ever seen.
When your mother is on the verge of suicide and your father (The Crying Game‘s Stephen Rea) is the town drunk, your only options for how to get by in 1960s small-town Ireland is to raise hell. Francie Brady (newcomer Eamonn Owens in the role of a lifetime) is an over-imaginative bully who passes the days playing cowboys and Indians with his best friend Joe and picking on the well-to-do Philip, much to the chagrin of Philip’s overbearing mother (True Blood‘s Fiona Shaw). After a family party, Francie’s parents get into a massive fight (and his father begins to beat his mother), so Francie runs away. By the time he returns, his mother has committed suicide, and he’s left in the “care” of his abusive and completely useless father. Francie begins to act out in increasingly violent and dangerous ways, and it’s not long before he’s sent to a reform school. When he’s finally able to come home, his father starts dying and even the worthless chain to other humanity that he was is on the verge of disappearing. Francie begins to descend into an steadily more fragile mind-state until the line between reality and his fantasies completely blurs.
I’ve seen several Neil Jordan films before this. Michael Collins was great if a little on the dry side (and the long side). Interview With The Vampire was a fun, extraordinarily homoerotic (that’s not why it was fun) twist on the period costume drama. The Brave One was a feminist spin on Death Wish. Nothing he had made prepared me for the artistic tour-de-force that was The Butcher Boy. In some ways, it reminded me of the David Lynch film The Lost Highway in the way it really puts you in the mind of someone that is mentally ill. The story is told through Francie’s perspective (and narrated by adult Francie ala Stand by Me), and the film begins almost inconspicuously as an especially foul-mouthed coming-of-age movie. Suddenly though, Francie’s world begins to collapse around him and the narrative becomes more and more fractured and more and more bizarre to represent the dissolution of Francie’s mental well-being. There are moments in the film that are obviously fantasies but because the movie completely blurs the line between what’s real and what isn’t, the more subtle moments of truly shocking behavior by Francie are left up to the audience to decide their reality. By the end of the film, you feel nearly as schizophrenic as its star until its shocking finale jolts you back into reality.
Eamonn Owens gave one of the most impressive child performances that I’ve ever seen. He was a raw, feral, untapped talent that Neil Jordan picked out of a country school, and the fact that he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award is a sin. I’m not saying he should have beaten Jack Nicholson for As Good As It Gets (though Matt Damon should have for Good Will Hunting), but he deserved a nomination. He was the most foul-mouthed, angry, vulnerable, broken, and ultimately insane kid I’ve seen in a movie in a long time, and there was a naked naturalism to Owens’ performance that was simply terrifying and heartbreaking. Stephen Rea is one of the most beloved stars of the Irish screen (and a Neil Jordan regular), and he nailed the part of the alcoholic father because he made him more than just a caricature in the moments where we see the man he could have been and wanted to be for his son. However, ultimately, the thing I’ll remember about this film more than the surrealism and more than the shocking displays of violence will be Owens performance which surely stands among the all time greats (i.e. Anna Paquin in The Piano and Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One In).
The film won several industry awards for cinematography (at least on the festival circuit), and it’s easy to see why. Jordan’s camera expertly captures the pastoral beauty of the Irish countryside, the squalor of Irish poverty, and the dichotomy between the haves and the have nots in this small Irish town. The film also expertly segues between the scenes of fantasy and reality and when the action is almost too subtle to obviously be a fantasy, the sudden stylistic changes in the shot cue the viewer in as to what’s real and what isn’t. Jordan also has an ability to excellently frame Owens’ face for ultimate heartbreaking effect. The period score was also well-integrated, and there’s a healthy chance it will have the same effect on certain songs from that era that A Clockwork Orange had on “Singin’ In the Rain” back in the day.
If you’re looking for a coming-of-age film that features forward emotional and spiritual progress from your hero, you should probably look elsewhere. The Butcher Boy is the coming-of-age story for everyone whose life went to complete hell, and it’s better for it. Learning about sex and becoming your own man are some of the most over-used tales of all time (even if I love them). You haven’t seen the story that The Butcher Boy tells. Thankfully, it has more going for it than shock value and the fiery performance from Eamonn Owens will stick with me for years to come. I can’t recommend to those of you with weak stomachs or that are easily offended, but for those who find the idea of a darkly comic bildungsroman appealing, The Butcher Boyis a hidden gem.
Final Score: A-