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Pig Boy

[whitespace] Butcher Boy Harrowing Farrow: Francie (Eamon Owens) is a fury in 'Butcher Boy.'

Neil Jordan's 'The Butcher Boy' loves the world it burns

By Richard von Busack

IT'S ANOTHER "How did they ever make a movie out of ... ?" movie: Director Neil Jordan's adaptation of Patrick McCabe's bloodcurdling novel The Butcher Boy. Set in a small Irish town at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, McCabe's book was a dark, acid, squalid read. Jordan (Interview With the Vampire, The Crying Game), who collaborated on the screenplay with McCabe, helped to find a softer, mellower vision in the dire novel.

The country vistas, the bicycle transportation, even the darned patches on the townspeople's sweaters (immediately, I realize that most readers will have no idea what darning is, it's so obsolete in the Western world)--all of this detail adds an air of nostalgia to the story of a killer child. Is there any way for a filmmaker to make the poverty of the old days look anything but picturesque?

The Butcher Boy bears an evil streak a mile long, despite the muted colors. It unfolds in a wistful rural world, but the hero, a boy of about 11, can't get a foothold anywhere in it. Eamonn Owens plays the title character, a larval psychopath, the would-be were-pig Francie Brady. Until he wears out his welcome an hour into the movie, Owens dominates The Butcher Boy like James Cagney reborn.

"The Butcher Boy" is Ma Brady's favorite Irish folk song. Her son, Francie, is a plump, sturdy, brick-colored, freckly child. According to the old expression, he's the image of the way the well-fed errand boy of a butcher looks.

Francie is the child of two damaged parents. His father (Stephen Rea) is the drinkingest man in the town, and though he's a sweet nonentity--he plays the trumpet--Da possesses a boiling temper, too. (In novels, I've read the phrase "His face was black with rage"; Rea seems to know how to get his face just that shade.) Francie's Ma (Aisling O'Sullivan) is a manic-depressive who is taken away by the police on a trip to "the garage," Francie's private slang for the madhouse.

The boy is a caretaker kid, shunned by the main snob of the town, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw). Francie delights in giving the woman a hard time: stealing her apples in the opening of the film, trashing her house by the middle. It's Mrs. Nugent who first makes the mistake of calling Francie a pig. He seizes on the idea, letting it take him over.

As in Jordan's last film seen here, Michael Collins, the second half subtracts from the first. As Francie moves on to bigger and better outrages, there should be a switch to a different actor. Admittedly, Francie would be the same little boy inside even as an adult, but outside he should progress from goblin to full-sized monster.

What makes Francie explode is the loss of his last illusion: the romantic, ultimately fictional tale of his parents' love story. How Francie discovers the truth is unlikely. He is, though only a child, told an awful story you'd hesitate to tell even an adult. Maybe these objections are just covering up my exhaustion with Owens' performance, which is so powerful it burns a viewer out. About an hour is as long as anyone can suffer a child prodigy.

Still, what a prodigy! Actor Michael Rooker always gives me the willies; Owens looks like Rooker must have looked when he was 10. If you were smart, you would have crossed the street to avoid him even in the fourth grade. The magically charismatic Owens has a hoarse, enthusiastic voice that bodes trouble even when he's saying something nice.

Owens displays the antic desperation to please that usually passes as a little performer's delight in performance. It's supposed to be adorable when you see this kind of presence in old movies. Sixty years ago, Owens would have been billed with Judy Garland. Here, the menace underneath that bursting energy--that performer's need for love, love, love--is exposed for comic effect.

JORDAN SHOWS us the incipient madness in Francie's swagger, but he also shows us life as a psycho sees it: everyone is either for you or against you, and there's not a particle of space in between. The "bad bastard garage" where Francie is sent is a punk kid's fantasy of juvenile hall--how it will be all his to rule.

The dumb hicks there--the "bony-arsed bogmen," Francie calls them--respond to Francie like a chorus, replying in tandem to their new leader, just as Donald Duck's nephews talk to their uncle. The priest who runs the reform school (played by Milo O'Shea, who starred as Leopold Bloom in the 1967 film of Ulysses) hankers for little boys and is easily wrapped around Francie's finger.

Francie's badness even carries a heavenly mandate: the Virgin Mary appears to him in the sky above a peat field. She's played by Sinéad O'Connor with long red tresses and that sorrowing expression the singer perfected in her sad music videos.

It might not be necessary to know the history of the pig in Ireland to appreciate how resonant Francie's choice of a totem animal is. Still, here goes: In rural Ireland, during its centuries as England's possession, the pig was commonly the rent animal, fattened up all year with scraps and then sold to pay the landlord. He was too valuable to eat; he was both member of the family and landlord's agent. Mrs. Nugent, Francie's Englishified nemesis, is the perfect target for an avenging pig spirit.

As a dedicated magical realist, Jordan, Ireland's best film director, makes the surreal seem as ordinary as rain. The postcard village is matched with postcard symbolism (O'Connor's Virgin Mary looks exactly the way she does in an inexpensive religious painting). Jordan has made this affectionate story of a bad, bad boy strangely lovely. Owens' character evokes the severest mixed feelings since Malcolm McDowell's in A Clockwork Orange--though the conscience rests easier with the former. Francie is only a killer, not a rapist.

Since Francie is a movie fan, he sees the nuclear threat of the missile crisis in terms of B pictures, such as The Brain From Planet Arous, seen in an excerpt. Only insect-headed mutants survive the mushroom cloud that Francie imagines, a cloud that turns his town into a ruin and the townspeople into burnt pigs. Remember James Joyce's famous insult from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, calling Ireland "the old sow that eats her farrow"--namely, her piglets?

In The Butcher Boy, superstitiousness and ignorance are excoriated, and yet they are also cherished as if they were long-lost relics--just as someone would purchase religious kitsch at an antique store to show how far he's evolved. Like the best hideo-comic writing about Ireland--Ulysses, Flann O'Brien's The Poor Mouth--The Butcher Boy never loses its rooted love for the world it burns.

The Butcher Boy (R; 105 min.), directed by Neil Jordan, written by Jordan and Patrick McCabe, based on McCabe's novel, photographed by Adrian Biddle and starring Eamonn Owens and Stephen Rea.

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From the April 30-May 6, 1998 issue of Metro.

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