Irish in-joke or a demonic Huck Finn?

Movie: The Butcher Boy

The Butcher Boy
Length: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: 1998-04-15
Cast: Eamonn Owens, Steven Rea, Fiona Shaw
Director: Neil Jordon
Screenwriter: Neil Jordon, Patrick McCabe
Music Score: Elliot Goldenthal
WorkNameSort: The Butcher Boy
Our Rating: 2.50

Author Patrick McCabe calls Francie Brady, the protagonist of his novel "The Butcher Boy," a cross between Dennis the Menace and Jack the Ripper. In the film version, co-written by McCabe and director Neil Jordan, Francie hovers uneasily between the two: One minute he's an impish 12-year-old with a rich fantasy life, the next a sociopath casually committing sadistic violence.

It's a tricky balancing act to pull off, and Jordan chooses an idiosyncratic storytelling device. He gives Francie two voices: the wry Stephen Rea serves as a narrator, while red-haired dynamo Eamonn Owens embodies the young Francie as a charmer with a quicksilver temper. These two versions of Francie, who sometimes even talk to each other, spew a constant stream of irreverent commentary about life in a small Irish town in the early 1960s, as well as the pop culture of comic books, American television shows and atomic paranoia, with its tangible fear of nuclear attack.

But mostly Francie fixates on Joe Purcell (Alan Boyle), his only friend. While not a literal orphan when the film begins, Francie gets little comfort from his parents -- a mentally unstable mother and alcoholic-musician father (Rea) -- and he relies heavily on Joe for emotional validation.

Francie is also obsessed with provincial snobbery. While not immune to it (he calls the rural Irish "bogmen"), he lashes out at his nemesis, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), who has adopted upper-class airs and calls the Bradys "pigs."

"The Butcher Boy" is about the routine betrayals that are the harbinger of adulthood, but here they trigger guilt-free violence instead of maturation.

Neil Jordan, the often brilliant writer-director of "The Crying Game," makes some questionable choices here, employing a nostalgic visual style squarely at odds with Francie's delusional point of view, and packs the film with every Irish Catholic stereotype imaginable. It's difficult to tell whether Jordan meant "The Butcher Boy" as an elaborate Irish in-joke (with Sinéad O'Connor cast as the Virgin Mary and a script full of ornate slang) or simply a poisonous love letter from a demonic Huck Finn.