"The Butcher Boy" is a sly piece of emotional blackmail, a wickedly funny and calculating example of a film genre best described as Bog Gothic.
The Bog Gothic is a drama, usually told in memoir form, usually having to do with a lad upon whom heaps of misfortune are visited. The enemies, in no particular order, are small towns, the Catholic church, officers of the law, the nuclear family and the British. The emotional tone comes in two colors, golden-rose and obsidian. The protagonists suffer greatly -- indeed they fairly wallow -- but draw on deep reserves of spirit, mordant humor and a mystical connection to the earth to keep them going.
And rest assured that by the yarn's inevitably bittersweet end, pints will be quaffed and songs will be sung. Because the Bog Gothic is always unmistakably, unequivocally, archetypally Irish.
In "The Butcher Boy," the protagonists of the peat are 12-year-old Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens), his Da (Stephen Rea) and his Ma (Aisling O'Sullivan), who are living in the tiny town of Carn in the early 1960s.
Francie is a high-spirited child, with a rampant imagination fueled by comic books, American TV, science-fiction B-movies, a vague but ubiquitous fog of anti-communism and a passionate love for his best friend Joe (Alan Boyle).
Francie, whose father is a surly and abusive alcoholic and whose mother is teetering toward madness, is a dervish of rage and need, desperately seeking to impose narrative sense on a world that is blowing into smithereens.
To focus his volatile energies, he projects the many ills of his life on a snooty neighbor, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw). Francie is a caution: His outrageous antics amuse but also frighten his neighbors. As his family unravels, and as his friendship with Joe becomes strained, Francie's behavior becomes increasingly monstrous, culminating in a horrifically grotesque crime.
"The Butcher Boy," which was adapted from the Patrick McCabe novel by Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game," "Michael Collins"), is suffused with enough black comedy to qualify as a genuine Bog Gothic, and if the film's narration (by the adult Francie) is any indication, McCabe has written a funny, linguistically pungent novel.
But did it have to be a movie? Or is it just cashing in on the current mania for all things Irish?
The Irish chauvinism currently on the ascendant assumes that the Irish are such colorful characters, such good yarn-spinners, that only a churl would question the worthiness of bringing each and every one of them to the screen.
This churl detects a wee bit of extortion at work. The creative team behind "The Butcher Boy" -- a team that includes Sinead O'Connor for bonus points -- lends the film such prestige and nobility of purpose that filmgoers may feel ashamed for asking what's in it for them.
Unquestionably Francie is a compelling character, and Eamonn Owens is admirably gutsy in his portrayal (with his irresistible smile he resembles a young, red-haired Albert Finney). But his adventures, real and imagined, add up to little more than a highly colored penny dreadful, a neo-Dickensian grotesquery given the patina of sophistication by the cast and McCabe's poisonous humor.
Curious fans of the novel, admirers of the stars or director and filmgoers with a weakness for the Emerald Isle may find "The Butcher Boy" appealing, but everyone else may well find that it only gets their Irish up.
'The Butcher Boy'
Directed by Neil Jordan
Released by Warner Brothers
Rated R (language and violence)
Sun Score: **
Pub Date: 5/01/98