Do not go to Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997) expecting it to be like his Breakfast on Pluto (2005), even though both films are based on novels by Patrick McCabe. The two films are not wholly dissimilar in tone, but where Breakfast on Pluto is a film where the seriousness is constantly undercut by the fun of the thing, The Butcher Boy is one where the fun is completely blotted out by the seriousness. Sure, it’s a film that offers the blasphemously hilarious notion of Sinead O’Connor as the Virgin Mary. And yes, it has more than its share of uproariously funny moments. But it’s also a very dark, very disturbing look into the life and mind of a dangerously unbalanced child, Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens), the butcher boy of the title.
What makes the film so disturbing—apart from the deliberately unsympathetic playing of Owens—is that it charts so much of what happens in the normal course of growing up, yet the events are filtered through the main character’s warped sense of reality. Jordan captures such profoundly painful childhood moments as when your first “best friend” suddenly isn’t your best friend anymore, but is somebody else’s, and those little glimmerings that build up to the realization that your parents aren’t quite what they seemed at first glance. The fact that the film is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis makes it all even more unsettling, because the world that Francie inhabits is, at that point, no less warped than his vision of it. The film’s “normal” adults are often more absurd than he is (“It’ll be a dark day for our town if the world ends”). Francie at least realizes he’s living on the edge of annihilation—even if in fantasticated terms. He’s also, interestingly, the one person who, from all appearances, actually sees the Virgin Mary in a town that comes to believe she’s about to pay them all a visit. (What they get instead is as funny as it is disturbing.) Yet, is he merely delusional—or not? The last scene in the film poses that very question, but leaves it to you to decide.