The Butcher Boy
Directed By: Neil Jordan
Starring: Eamonn Owens, Fiona Shaw, Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleason, Aisling O'Sullivan, Ian Hart, Alan Boyle, Sinéad O'Connor
Neil Jordan's "The Butcher Boy", while certainly one of his finest films, has been little seen in the United States due to tragic circumstances coincident to its release. It opened on April 3, 1998, which turned out to be only ten days after an 11 and 13 year old boy murdered a teacher and four students and injured nine others at a school near Jonesboro, Arkansas.
American audiences were quite understandably not ready for a film with a darkly comic tone dealing with a boy driven to madness and homicidal rage. The film ended up seeing a very limited arthouse release, and was never released on DVD in North America until now.
"The Butcher Boy", adapted by Jordan and Patrick McCabe from McCabe's novel of the same name, tells the story of Francie Brady (Owens). Francie is a young boy who lives in the town of Carn, in the north of Ireland, in the early 1960s. He has an alcoholic father (Rea), a depressive mother (O'Sullivan), a knack for trouble, and an active imagination. His loyalty to his best friend Joe (Boyle) is rivaled only by his hatred for his neighbor, Mrs. Nugent (Shaw), who makes it no secret that she believes Francie and his family to be no better than pigs. Francie endures a litany of personal tragedies, unsuccessful institutionalizations, and anxiety-filled news reports on the unfolding Cuban missile crisis that gradually drive him to the brink of madness.
The film hinges on the acting of the 14-year old Owens, and he provides one of the most impressive juvenile performances I have ever seen. He is absolutely believable, conveying complex extroverted emotions and deep angst like a mini Kirk Douglas. As a viewer, you do not only empathize with his pain, but you continue to root for him even as it becomes increasingly clear that he is a lost cause on an inevitable path of self-destruction and violence.
The film walks a fine line by striking a weirdly comic tone that counterpoints the horrific events that unfold throughout. The despair that would seem natural is somehow held at bay by Francie's infectious enthusiasm, his sense of humor, the vivid representations of his imaginative visions including a chatty Virgin Mary (O'Connor), the irony-laced narration by an adult Francie, the film's unconventional music choices, and the somewhat otherworldly deeply saturated color palette. In this way, it is reminiscent of Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" without the science-fiction trappings and overt satirical edge.
The transfer for "The Butcher Boy" fills the complete 16:9 frame. It beautifully represents the stylized, heavily saturated, color palette of the film. Light natural film grain is present sporadically, and source flaws are few and far between. Shadow detail is excellent. The only thing marring this otherwise reference quality transfer are persistent halos around high contrast edges.
The 5.1 track has excellent fidelity. The surrounds are used for light ambience and a bit of "reverbed" depth except for a few key scenes where the sound field becomes chaotic and aggressively 3-dimensional with music and effects in all channels.
The most substantial extra is an audio commentary by director/co-writer Neil Jordan. Jordan is very soft spoken, but speaks lucidly and at great length about a wide range of relevant topics including how he collaborated with Patrick McCabe to adapt the novel, details about casting, working with juvenile actors, and why he changed the ending from the novel.
The disc also contains three brief deleted scenes totaling three minutes and 21 seconds. They are presented in 4:3 letterboxed widescreen, and are of "work print" quality with lots of film element wear and tear. One scene has Francie coming home to his sick father after an argument with Joe. The other two scenes are extended bits from the film's epilogue. It is easy to see why all three scenes were cut from the film, but the bits from the epilogue do explain how Francie came to be carrying a trumpet case in the last few scenes of the movie.
Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen with 2.0 stereo sound.
The film comes in a standard Amaray-type hard plastic case with no insert.
A disturbing, darkly comic tale of a young boy driven to madness and violence by persistent tragedy and loss will certainly not be for everyone, but if it is for you, Warner's DVD of "The Butcher Boy" presents a decent audio/video presentation, marred only by the presence of edge enhancement, with a thoughtful and insightful Neil Jordan commentary.