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The Boston Phoenix Pig Tale

"The Butcher Boy" is prime Neil Jordan.

By Peter Keough

APRIL 20, 1998:  The Irish don't need the Troubles to act that way, as director Neil Jordan well knows. In his new film The Butcher Boy, an adaptation of a feverish novel by Patrick McCabe that's part Portrait of the Artist, part Cuckoo's Nest, the setting is provincial Ireland in the early '60s, a time and place apparently devoid of political strife, artistic fervor, or spiritual striving. The sole crucible of such creative turmoil is 12-year-old Francie Brady (exuberant newcomer Eamonn Owens), a lad whose alcoholic Da (dogged Jordan regular Stephen Rea) and whimsically suicidal Ma (a fragile Aisling O'Sullivan) are the least of his problems.

He's kissed the Blarney Stone and then some, and his clueless, callous hometown of Clones, in County Monaghan (near the border), will prove the ground zero for his blood-drenched epiphany. Balancing horror and hilarity, paranoia and pathos, Jordan with bold, brilliant authority re-creates the world of the adolescent imagination gone berserk, a grotesque, glowing evocation of insanity that is uncompromising, disturbing, and deeply comic.

Comic books, indeed, and the TV shows of the period, are Francie's inspiration as well as Jordan's: the film opens with images of superheroes and soldiers on the pulp pages of Francie's collection before dissolving into the boy himself, bandaged from head to toe in a hospital bed. How he got there is the tale told by his genially cracked latter-day self (Rea also), a perpetual voiceover (taken for the most part from the novel's prose) that serves not as an intrusion but as a percolating, often insidiously insightful buzz of subjectivity. This total immersion into Francie's fractured consciousness, and the carnival-like gaiety and gloom of Jordan's imagery, make The Butcher Boy a giddying exercise in unreliable narration.

One touchstone for reality is Joe Purcell (Alan Boyle), Francie's "blood brother," who indulges with him in adventuresome reveries at their river-bank hideout and is his sometime partner in fantasy and fanciful crime. Chief target of their iconoclastic high jinks is good-natured goody-goody Philip Nugent (Andrew Fullerton), whom they torment with Tom-and-Huck insouciance. Philip's mother, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw, who triumphs over stereotype by backing her distaste with paralyzed compassion), is unamused; singling out Francie as responsible, she confronts his mother with his delinquency and declares to the neighborhood that nothing else could be expected from such a family of pigs.

That proves a rallying cry for Francie, who directs his ire at Mrs. Nugent and her pretensions of British gentility. His playfulness grows pathological -- he corners her and Philip in the street and demands they pay a "pig tax," and in one of their last pranks together, he's stopped from assaulting Philip by Joe. His bosom buddy, for whom breaking the ice in the village fountain while dreaming of winning the lottery is the ultimate in daring, becomes unsettled and estranged by Francie's increasing penchant for mania and violence.

Neither does home life offer much consolation. Francie's mother is stirred from melancholia by a recording of the baleful ballad of the film's title, and she's aroused to baking hundreds of pastries for the return of her husband's brother from his big success in London. That homecoming party, with its sour glints of jealousy, betrayal, and despair glimpsed by Francie's skewed perception, recalls Joyce's Dubliners in its subtlety and desolation.

And it marks the end of Francie's proper social interaction as death and transgression lead him from reform school to the booby hatch and finally to a job as a clean-up boy in an abattoir where his pig imagery reaches its messily logical conclusion. Sustained by the sardonic high spirits of both Jordan and his hero, the film tracks Francie's alienation and his liberation through grandiose, eventually apocalyptic fantasies. His climactic delusion merges into the mass hysteria surrounding the Cuban missile crisis, and it's a convulsion of the mythic, tawdry, absurd, and tragic that is Jordan's filmmaking at its best.

Jordan sometimes strays into the obvious. Milo O'Shea as a pederastic priest is a sophomoric touch, but Francie in a dress adds a Buñuelian element, and though Sinéad O'Connor's cameo as the Blessed Virgin is heavy-handed, her final appearance is aching in its clarity and melancholy. Clutching a flower that is her last gift to him, Francie says, "Tell me then: are all the beautiful things gone?" Not while there are still crazy Irishmen like Francie and Neil Jordan to dream them up.

One man's meat

NEW YORK -- Reports of Catholic outrage over The Butcher Boy's irreverence, in particular the casting of the anathema Sinéad O'Connor as the Blessed Virgin, are, according to a jet-lagged Neil Jordan, unfounded.

"Casting Sinéad wasn't a big deal in Ireland, not at all," he says. "There was no controversy there whatsoever, though there was some here. There was a big thing in the New York Post one day. An indignant story on the cover. There's been an attempt to stir up controversy, which is completely beside the point. The film is not irreverent. Yeah, it's shocking, but it's not irreverent. It's kind of a religious movie, really. But not everyone will see it as that. Some people will see it as offensive. I think people will find the violence disturbing. And because the violence is disturbing, I see that as a sign that it's done right. Some people use violence in movies for titillation. In this case the violence is quite shocking."

People usually find something disturbing in a Neil Jordan movie, if he's doing his job properly. His last film, Michael Collins, about the man who spearheaded the Irish war of independence, offended both those who felt it to be a vindication of the IRA and its terrorist activities and those scandalized by its suggestion that the late Eamon de Valera, former Irish president and nationalist icon, was somehow involved in the title hero's death. For some Jordan fans, however, Michael Collins and his previous film, Interview with the Vampire, were more disturbing because, as big-budget Hollywood productions, they seemed to lack the distinctiveness of a true Jordan film.

"You're totally right," he acknowledges. "With Michael Collins, because it was a historical film, I tried to make it as dispassionate as possible. But I don't see it as a different thing. I just suppose over the last few years I've been lucky enough to make some big movies and some small movies and all with a measure of independence. I don't see them as different, really. But I know they are. In the end, anything that works is satisfying.

"And I think this one works. But we'll see. It works for me. We'll see whether it works for the public. I suppose it's more satisfying to make something that there's no precedent for. You know what I mean? To make a movie like this or like The Crying Game, which kind of has to go into uncharted, stormy areas that movies don't normally go to."

The place this one goes to is the uncharted terrain of a deranged adolescent mind. "The center of the movie was through the character, the tortured consciousness of Francie Brady. And the key to keeping everybody involved is to see the world through his eyes, but also to retain some objectivity, to get that balance.

"I just think he's a beautiful kid who's had too much hostility from his environment. Yet he always copes with tragedy, which is a knack that children and geniuses and mentally-off people sometimes have. The more the world changes around him, the more he wants to restore it to his ideal."

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