Among all the fictional hit men, mass murderers, serial killers and engineers of genocide to become pop-culture heroes in our death-obsessed era (I'm not launching a jeremiad here, just stating the facts), Francie Brady occupies a special place. The small-town juvenile sociopath who narrates Patrick McCabe's remarkable Irish-gothic novel "The Butcher Boy," and now Neil Jordan's sweetly tragicomic movie of the same name, Francie is a rambunctious, apple-cheeked, relentlessly optimistic lad filled with manifold enthusiasms. His story starts out as "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and ends up as "Frankenstein."
Fascinated by gangsters, cowboys and Indians, comic-book monsters and the early-1960s threat of nuclear annihilation, Francie begins to find the world increasingly at odds with his high-energy, gee-whiz fantasy life. When he slides into vandalism, petty sadism and finally murderous malice, it's with a sense of detached and almost mystified regret, as though neither he nor anyone else were quite responsible for these unhappy events. McCabe's principal accomplishment in "The Butcher Boy" is something that really can't be rendered in a movie -- Francie's droll, irrepressible, seemingly carefree voice so dominates the book that readers only gradually realize that he's a) an abused child from a poor and desperate family, b) probably congenitally insane and c) a monster in the making. Jordan does about as well as he can, capturing Francie's deepening schizophrenia through an especially imaginative use of voice-over (in which the child Francie and the apparently adult narrator Francie occasionally talk to one another, teacher-and-student style).
Even so, the movie's audience can only observe Francie from the outside, and the focus of "The Butcher Boy" becomes the world that has apparently created him, rather than the internal world he has created. Indeed, the film's elaborate fantasy sequences -- in which Francie sees his town destroyed by an A-bomb and is persecuted by bug-headed aliens -- feel like irrelevant amusements. Jordan is far more comfortable and convincing on home turf, in his acrid, economical re-creation of Irish provincial life, with all its cruel gossip, hypocritical religiosity and dank little secrets. Like almost everyone in the Ireland of the time, the characters in "The Butcher Boy" get from one depressing day to the next by yearning for a lost, happier age, which they're dimly aware never really existed.
As played by screen newcomer Eamonn Owens -- a strapping, rather abrasive little pumpkinhead -- Francie is bound and determined to live his boyhood to the fullest, although events keep threatening to trip him up. His dad (longtime Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea, in another of his hooded-eyed portrayals of Irish manhood on the skids) was once a promising trumpeter, and can still be coaxed to play the William Tell Overture along with the theme of the "Lone Ranger" TV show. Now he's the town drunk, taking out his bitterness on Francie's ma (Aisling O'Sullivan). In between trying to hang herself and manically baking hundreds of pastries, Ma is periodically hauled off to what Francie and his best friend Joe (Alan Boyle) jocularly dub "the garage" (because you go there after a breakdown).
Like all of Francie's emotions, his intense attachment to Joe -- which at first seems like a perfectly ordinary schoolboy crush -- is just a little out of proportion. It drives him to mercilessly torment the shy, scholarly Philip (Andrew Fullerton), who he perceives as his rival for Joe's affections, and finally to see Mrs. Nugent -- Philip's prissy, middle-class mother (Fiona Shaw), who fatefully calls Francie's family "pigs" -- as the source of all his pain and difficulty. As most viewers will correctly guess from the outset, the consequences are at first gruesomely comic, and finally horrifying.
Even Francie's plucky attempts at picaresque adventure go wrong: He runs off to Dublin and returns with a cheesy "Irish country cottage" souvenir for his mother, only to discover she has done herself in at last; he runs off to the dreary seaside resort where his parents spent their honeymoon, only to learn that their marriage was bitter and empty even then. His desperate belief that things will soon be all right eventually deteriorates into dementia, as when he vigorously cleans house and cooks meals while a corpse lies festering in the living room.
Jordan's adaptation of "The Butcher Boy" (co-written with McCabe) remains a compelling exploration of the permeable border between normal childhood and full-on insanity. But the literalness and apparent objectivity of the film medium occasionally give this movie the flavor of an after-school special purveying didactic lessons about abuse and victimization. What is lost is the novel's central Beckettian ambiguity: Francie never makes excuses for his own heartlessness, and McCabe doesn't exactly imply them -- although Francie's upbringing is certainly dismal enough. If anything, McCabe seems to hint that the comic intelligence that makes the book so enjoyable -- highlighted by Francie's dry raillery against the libidinous priests and thick-headed country "bogmen" who persecute him through various workhouses, orphanages and hospitals -- is itself fundamentally amoral.
What is gained in the film, on the other hand, is the tenderness and sweetness that Jordan ("The Crying Game") often brings to unforgiving subject matter. When Francie first sees an apparition of the Virgin Mary (Siniad O'Connor, looking beautiful in stylized Our Lady drag), whom he addresses as "Missus," we suspect he's faking it to gain attention from the priests in his orphanage. But Francie is a boy with the power to make his fantasies come true, and by the time of the film's epilogue, many years later, his kitsch Virgin ("For fuck's sake, Francie!" she exclaims in a country accent) has become a genuine beacon of hope, Francie's projection of whatever sanity and common sense remain in him. This final scene, in fact, lends a heartbreaking resonance to the rather arch, elliptical tale that has gone before -- we see the adult Francie (the rumpled Rea again, in ill-matched contemporary clothing), broken and mystified by what he has done and had done to him, and we realize that even his terrible crimes have not destroyed his innocence.