Getting inside a criminal's mind, particularly that of a murderer, is a difficult challenge for a filmmaker with a sense of morality. On the one hand, the criminal's deranged sensibility must be presented as non—judgmentally as possible so that the audience can understand how such a person operates and what makes him or her tick. On the other hand, the effect of the evil perpetrated must be fully communicated.
To achieve good results, the story is usually told from the criminal's point of view. The best example of how to evoke a deviant mentality without losing its moral significance is the cinematic adaptation of French Catholic novelist Fran¸ois Mauriac's classic, Therese Desqueyroux. In it, after the bored heroine tries to poison her husband, she's acquitted in court but doesn't escape punishment elsewhere.
A much hyped instance of the opposite effect is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a Gen—X, cult—classic. Written and directed by John McNaughton (Wild Things) in 1990, it creates a self—contained moral universe identical to that of its demented killer. Each crime is gruesomely depicted, and there's no sense of an outside value system that could pass judgment on his behavior.
The Butcher Boy, the most recent cinematic study of the criminal mind, has received glowing reviews from many critics. Based on Patrick McCabe's novel, it mixes together Catholicism, pop culture, Irish small—town customs, and surreal effects to get inside the skin of 12—year—old Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens), an Irish Huck Finn gone mad. Director Neil Jordan (Michael Collins and The Crying Game) has written the screenplay with McCabe, and they've created a perversely upbeat study of an adolescent criminal, most of whose activities are only slight exaggerations of normal childhood pranks. The young boy's overly violent outbursts of anger seem natural, and the Catholicism, on which his community's ethical standards are based, is ridiculed.
It's the early 1960s, and Francie is being raised by his alcoholic “Da” (Stephen Rea) and his suicidal mom (Aisley O'Sullivan). To escape, he and his best friend, Joe (Allan Boyle) have immersed themselves in American TV series such as The Lone Ranger and The Fugitive, grade—B John Agar sci—fi flicks, and Green Lantern comics. This pop culture stew helps set their code of conduct.
Francie and Joe take an Apache blood oath to be true to each other to death, which Francie takes more seriously than his friend. At the same time, America is locked in the Cuban missile crisis with Russia, and the voice of President John Kennedy, an Irish Catholic role model, blares out from TV screens and radio sets, impressing both the boys and the local adults with its soothing gravity.
Francie is a natural leader, clever and outspoken, eager to get into brawls. But he often comes on too strong, alienating those around him without knowing it. His behavior is, in part, determined by troubles at home. His “Da,” once a talented trumpet—player, can no longer hold a job and beats up on him and his mother. She, in turn, is in and out of asylums, and when released, sublimates her inner conflicts with compulsive activities like the manic baking of hundreds of cakes for a small family party.
Francie enjoys bullying his sober, studious classmate, Philip Nugent (Andrew Fullerton), and when the tormented lad's mother (Fiona Shaw) stands up to him, he destroys their home. The filmmakers present Mrs. Nugent as the epitome of uptight, lower—middle class propriety and lead us to take Francie's side in his revenge.
The young rebel is sent away to a reform school run by priests whom Jordan and McCabe make targets of an obvious kind of anti—Catholic satire. In order to avoid hard outdoor labor, Francie claims to have visions of the Virgin Mary (Sinead O‘Connor) which the movie shows us. She uses profanity while addressing the young boy and passes no judgment on his behavior. The clerics are impressed by his claims and give him special treatment. A sexually abusive priest (Milo O'Shea) takes advantage of Francie's situation. But in return for his silence, the young boy is released from the school to go back to his family.
The real world begins to collide with Francie's fantasies in an unpleasant fashion. When he runs away from home, bad things happen he can't deal with. But his greatest pain is the dissolution of his friendship with Joe. First, he learns that his blood brother is palling around with his arch—nemesis, the puny Philip Nugent. Then Francie tries to spring Joe from a Catholic boarding school. His former buddy will have nothing to do with him and elects to remain inside. The rejection is more than Francis can bear, and he takes out his frustrations on Mrs. Nugent in a murderous way.
Along the way, the movie can't resist taking a few more cheap shots at the Virgin Mary and those who venerate her. This blasphemous style of filmmaking has its antecedents in The Last Temptation of Christ. But Jordan and McCabe do the Scorsese film one better by casting O‘Connor as Our Blessed Lady. The pop singer once made a name for herself by ripping up a picture of the Pope on network television, an outrage for which she's alleged to have apologized.
The Butcher Boy's degradation of Catholicism eliminates the only value system that could highlight the evil of Francie's acts to those around him. The result is that early adolescent criminal psychosis is presented as humorous and cool as well as horrifying. It's a slickly concocted nihilism that can damage the soul.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
Butcher Boy is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.