A Childhood in Hell
One of the most vivid memories I have of my Irish-American grandmother’s house is the framed portrait of John F. Kennedy that hung in the living room. Even as a six-year-old, something about that struck me as a little peculiar — no one else I knew had a picture of a president (alive or dead) in their living rooms, like he was part of the family or something.
But it’s not only Irish-Americans who revere Kennedy — the Irish do, too, and JFK is one of the icons that informs the world of The Butcher Boy‘s Francie Brady. Francie’s world is a small town in Ireland in the early 1960s — Kennedy has yet to be deified by his untimely death, but already there isn’t a house in town that doesn’t have a sitting room blessed with a portrait of JFK next to the one of the Virgin Mary. And as will happen with children, Francie’s vivid imagination conflates these influences and others — JFK’s radio broadcast’s in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, sci-fi monster movies at the cinema, and sneaky peeks at The Fugitive on TV through a neighbor’s window. Francie’s fantasy life encompasses A-bomb nightmares inhabited by insectile alien priests as well as personal visits from a radiant Virgin Mary (Sinead O’Connor in a brilliant bit of stunt casting) in which she offers just the kind of advice a young boy really wants.
But like many Irish dramatic endeavors, The Butcher Boy is both comedy and tragedy, so Francie’s is a little more tortured than the typical childhood. And Francie himself is more unstable than most kids. His father (Stephen Rea, who also narrates the film as the grownup Francie) is an abusive drunkard; his mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) is suicidally depressed. A perverted priest gets Francie into his clutches. Francie is force-fed so many indignities and evils — all of which he attributes to the machinations of his busybody neighbor and nemesis, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) — that inevitably they begin to boil over into disturbing behavior. When even his best friend Joe (Alan Boyle II) is finally scared off by Francie’s violent turns, Francie is at last pushed over the edge.
Francie is played by 15-year-old Eamonn Owens, and he is the most astounding thing about The Butcher Boy. He brings a maturity of ability to a difficult role, imbuing Francie with charm and a kind of childlike grace so that you can barely see the seams where the ordinary overly imaginative child ends and the don’t-push-him-too-far sociopath begins. Francie is not the typical anti-hero, bad for badness’s own sake — the film allows us to understand the reasons for Francie’s awful behavior without ever apologizing for it. It’s Owens who makes Francie utterly sympathetic, with his large, sad, hard gaze and petulant pout. As I watched him spiral downward I kept hoping for some caring adult to intervene and save this boy.
But that adult never shows up, and Francie, like a feral child, is left to fend for himself, with disastrous consequences. The Butcher Boy is an anti coming-of-age movie — instead of the child adapting to the world, the child tries to adapt the world to suit him, with results that are sometimes funny, sometimes horrible, and sometimes both at the same time.