Words like gripping, shocking and extraordinary are tossed around so carelessly in movie quote ads they no longer have much impact, but they really do apply to Neil Jordan’s wonderful film The Butcher Boy . So how do I convince you this is a movie you’ve simply got to see? I can only tell you, you’ll be sorry if you don’t.
This is the kind of brilliant and disturbing motion picture achievement you can’t talk about descriptively. You have to experience it. It’s funny, scary and devastating, as the director of The Crying Game submerges you in the baptismal font of a unique and original cinematic catharsis: the heartbreaking world of a 12-year-old boy named Francie Brady, who is unlike anyone you’ve ever seen. The time is the early 1960’s. The place is a dull country town near the border of Northern Ireland. In this environment, Francie seems normal in every way-full of mischief, inventing boyish adventures about cowboys and atomic bombs, living vicariously through television. But his fantasy world and the bleakness of reality are two different things.
At home, his father is a sullen alcoholic brute (Stephen Rea) and his mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) is so demoralized by poverty, her husband’s violent beatings and her own fragile mental condition that she suffers a nervous breakdown, leaving Francie with nothing in the house to eat but a tin of sardines. Retreating further into a scenario of make-believe, the boy filches apples, then charges people a toll tax for passing him on the sidewalk, often introducing himself to strangers as a character named Algernon. Most of the neighbors find him a real card, but the bane of his existence is the snoopy, pretentious Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), who responds to his personal losses with contempt and cruelty. Francie determines Mrs. Nugent’s days are numbered.
After his mother commits suicide, Francie snaps. Breaking into Mrs. Nugent’s house, he trashes the place and defecates on her living room carpet. He is packed off to a work farm for delinquents in Galway to be disciplined, only to return and thrash around the village while his father’s corpse sits in a chair gathering flies. Francie is slowly spiraling out of control. Behind that mop of red hair, those cherry cheeks and all that bravery and Irish blarney, there’s a sad, angry child sinking into madness. Scorned by his friends and reduced to earning his keep in a slaughterhouse, Francie becomes a “butcher boy” who is lonely, rejected, deserted and belonging to no one-a kid so slammed by life he’s goaded into a state of eventual violence and horror.
Despite the lack of star “names” and the occasional campy visits by the famously blasphemous rock singer Sinead O’Connor as the Virgin Mary, The Butcher Boy is a strange brew of black comedy and Grand Guignol , with a spectacular performance by newcomer Eamonn Owens that is positively amazing. Charming old ladies one minute, destroying a pederast priest the next, enduring every sling and arrow in the struggle to survive and growing old before his time, Francie is a kid savaged and rammed by life’s lowest punches. And young Mr. Owens plays him with a depth and range that will take your breath away. No matter how repellent or larcenous he gets, he makes you laugh and care. He shows you what might have happened if Oliver Twist had lived long enough to join the Dead End Kids.
Chosen over thousands of boys for this role, he is, in real life, a happy, well-adjusted student who plays the accordion and traveled to New York with his All-Ireland Youth Band to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. In The Butcher Boy , he stamps himself on your heart-and so does the movie.
My back has been killing me ever since I saw the controversial Sam Mendes revival of Cabaret , and it’s not because I was knocked off my feet, either. To experience the sweat, stink and sleaze of a decadent prewar Berlin speak-easy, the audience that piles into the Kit Kat Klub on the site of the old converted Expo disco on West 43rd Street is forced to sit for hours on straight-back chairs in a torture destined to make more money for every chiropractor in town than for the producers of the show. These are the same chairs that Marlene Dietrich dug her stiletto heels into in The Blue Angel , but what may have been a perfect fit for Marlene is pure punishment for the human spine. With tables the size of smile buttons, and rip-off menu prices ($300 for a bottle of bubbly, are they kidding?), this is a show that should turn Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the Better Business Bureau into drama critics.
The show itself is flawed but fascinating. You don’t get Liza Minnelli singing the shit out of the John Kander and Fred Ebb score, and you don’t get the legendary Lotte Lenya as the landlady, who sauntered through Harold Prince’s original Broadway production in her frayed German housecoat, dragging the entire sound and smell of the Weimar period on stage with her, breaking your heart in the process. But Natasha Richardson is a battered triumph as Sally Bowles; a talented girl impersonating a self-deluded no-talent, she’s surprisingly on target in her weak attempts to sing. Mary Louise Wilson, in the Lenya role, is not exactly still playing Diana Vreeland, but she’s not playing much of anything else, either. Ron Rifkin, as the Jewish grocer in the role Jack Gilford still owns, and John Benjamin Hickey, as the writer Christopher Isherwood modeled after himself in his Berlin Stories , are so bland they scarcely register at all. Only the sinewy, lip-licking evil of Alan Cumming’s emcee, with lurid tattoos and sequined nipples, fully indicates the impending horror of Nazism.
Meanwhile, the girls have bruises, hickeys and needle marks, the men have hairy thighs protruding from garter belts, and everyone goose-steps through every conceivable simulated sexual S&M ritual in song and dance like Gestapos in drag. It’s diverting, but in New York we’ve got the same thing going on for real in the meatpacking district for the price of a beer. No wonder the wags are calling this one Singing and Fucking .
In The Newton Boys , the testosterone level is high even if the movie sometimes hits a few lows. American movies love their outlaws. We’ve had Bonnie and Clyde. We’ve thrilled to Frank and Jesse James. The Newton Boys, four brothers from Texas who really robbed 80 banks and six trains in four years during the early 1920’s, never became celebrities like John Dillinger or Al Capone or even Calamity Jane. Why? Because they never killed anybody. The movies may change all that, because the laid-back brothers all booted and spurred and ready for action are played by Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich and Vincent D’Onofrio. Just four goofy, charming, cornfed farm boys who were not cut out to be outlaws but had a long and jolly run, anyway. They may have even been more interesting than this cast.
Mr. McConaughey is Willis, the ringleader, whose philosophy about robbing banks is simple: “It’s not the people’s money-it’s the bank’s money. We’re just little thieves takin’ it away from bigger thieves.” So he talks his brothers, who are loud but not too bright, into crime as a fun group activity, and after their first holdup, it’s a piece of cake they don’t mind taking a bite out of. “When do we get out?” asks Joe, the baby brother, played by Skeet Ulrich. “When we’re millionaires,” says Willis. They’re the Keystone Kops of western outlaws, and they’ve got a sense of humor about everything. After cutting the Western Union wires, singer Dwight Yoakam says, “I guess that’ll encourage people to write more often.”
With pouty Ethan Hawke as Jess, the lady-killer, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Dock, the oldest brother who is just along for the ride, the Newton Boys and their safecracking sidekick Brentwood Glasscock (played by Mr. Yoakam) roughhouse it from state to state, collecting greenbacks and girls, feasting on lobsters and champagne, and treating grand larceny like an endless party. Eventually, Willis gets reckless and greedy, robbing armed guards at gunpoint in broad daylight, and almost gets the whole gang killed. Then times change and so does their luck. People stop buying victory bonds and start investing their money in the stock market. Running out of banks, the Newton Boys pull one last lulu in 1924, robbing a train of $3 million in Federal Reserve funds. But to the end, they stick to their gentlemen’s code of ethics: Never kill anybody, never steal from women and children, and never rat on each other. They pull off the biggest train robbery in American history and live to a ripe old age to tell about it.
It’s an O.K. story in a “So what?” movie, routinely directed by Richard Linklater. Since nothing much happens, it’s a movie that would benefit a more memorable, gifted or illustrious group of actors than it gets here. Matthew McConaughey has one serious problem-he can’t act at all. Ethan Hawke’s phony intensity is really getting boring. Skeet Ulrich looks like every waiter on Sunset Boulevard. The women are just set decorations. But stick around for the closing credits and you’ll see the last of the Newton Boys, who lived to be 90, in an actual interview with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show . He’s the best thing in the movie, and he’s not even around to take a bow.