THE BUTCHER BOY
****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Eammon Owens, Alan Boyle
screenplay by Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe, based on the novel by McCabe
directed by Neil Jordan
THE BRAVE ONE
***½/**** Image B- Sound B Extras C+
starring Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews, Nicky Katt
screenplay by Roderick Taylor & Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort
directed by Neil Jordan
THE BUTCHER BOY
by Walter Chaw Opening with a series of panels from Golden Age comics produced circa the era in which the film is set (i.e., 1962), The Butcher Boy identifies Neil Jordan as a director with a secret yen for superhero fantasies. It certainly jibes with the filmmaker's affection for protagonists who, for whatever reason, live in private worlds, in fairytale dreamscapes populated by emblems of good and emissaries of evil--worlds where the most colourful places are the interiors of churches, where the characters' fears and failings alike are assets. Jordan's films are unfailingly about transformation (though sometimes they're about the failure to transform adequately, or quickly enough) and heavy with the illness of existential introspection--the Judas strain with which the modern superhero pantheon is sick. His heroes are rendered simple by their duality, confronted by the idea that for as hollow as it is to change to fit the demands of a particular time and place, it's equally useless to try to stay the same as the world falls down. Jordan makes the movies Terry Gilliam never quite made until Tideland; far from the compassionate fare many label it, his oeuvre is comprised of harsh little ditties about the voraciousness of the social organism and the bites it takes out of individuals living perpendicular to the absolute mean. For me, all of his films, from The Crying Game to Mona Lisa, from The End of the Affair to Interview with the Vampire, are pointedly concerned with the futility of compensatory measures in the lives of deviants.
Jordan's best pictures, though, like The Butcher Boy (or the lurid The Company of Wolves, or In Dreams), suggest that the deviance of his characters is embedded in their biology: the lizard brain in ascendance, worrying at the trappings of civilization. In a powerhouse debut, fourteen-year-old Eamonn Owens plays Francie, the titular butcher's apprentice who, with a suicidal mother and alcoholic father, evokes the joy of being an animal unrestrained by socialization. It's not what happens when a cherubic boy is abused, it's what happens when a higher primate doesn't take to the conditions imposed on it by social norms, thus remaining, at an advanced age, a monster of the Id. It's the Tarzan mythos cast with honesty along the lines of Hobbes's "State of Nature": Francie isn't a product of his upbringing--he's free of any kind of upbringing whatsoever, and that exuberance is what casts his actions in a gorgeous, exhilarated light. It's endlessly telling that Jordan's chosen vehicle for this tale of archetype and instinct is a comic book, that childhood tabernacle worshipped beneath blanket altars in flashlit late nights. Francie runs riot through his own private Dublin, palling around with best mate Joey (Alan Boyle), whom Francie discovers, to his great sorrow, is not nearly the sociopath Francie himself happens to be. He blames Joey's kindness and insurmountable domestication--arbitrarily it seems--on arch-nemesis Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw). She and her effeminate son, in fact, bear the brunt of Francie's delighted rage all the way through to a discomfiting epilogue. Meanwhile, long-time Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea pops up as Francie's pickled Da (and Francie as a grown man, and Francie as a grown man's autobiographical voiceover narration), the second parent to desert Francie with no discernible effect on the little bastard
It's possible to say that his parents' deaths/desertions are at the root of Francie's steady decline (even more tempting to blame it on Francie becoming the favourite of an addled priest's attentions at boarding school), but I think Jordan's up to something a good deal more interesting, the implication being that Francie, down to his position as assistant to the pig man, is only embodying the natural order of things. The Butcher Boy is about how man has arrested evolution for the sake of civilization--explanation therein of a fandango midstream where Francie imagines the fallout of one of the nuclear blasts that puncture his existence amid the Cuban Missile Crisis: as a burned-out husk of a car with an anthropomorphized pig barbecued in the driver's seat. Loosed to their own devices and burned down to their basest essence, men are swine dedicated to their own inevitable, complete annihilation. What so disturbs about The Butcher Boy is that Jordan trips along his nihilism with a jaunty gait and a tune on his lips. It's a movie where the wolf is the hero (and more of Jordan's films are like this than not), and it's Jordan's contention that the end of Red Riding Hood isn't the Woodsman freeing grandmother from the wolf's belly, but rather granny belching up the wolf when no one's looking. To that end, see Jordan employ religious iconography, comic-book sensibility, and the garish junction where the two click like complementary gears in the same human clockwork. Francie is a superhero without the atrocity of a mushroom cloud to rationalize his violence; his apocalypses are personal and his acts of heroism meaningful only to him.
Understanding Jordan's machinery leads to a better appreciation of his much-maligned The Brave One. Jodie Foster, in high comic-book style, stars as the mild-mannered heroine, who undergoes a traumatic, tragic transformation at the hands of street thugs and is reborn, in a black wife-beater and with mannequin-faced remove, as the avatar for justice in Metropolis. Her weapon is an illegally-purchased gun she gets progressively better at shooting; her Commissioner Gordon is Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), a sad-eyed cop who develops a rooting interest in his quarry's predatory predilections. Jordan and DP Philippe Rousselot photograph New York in saturated blues and greens while Foster's Erica Bain grows increasingly butch in her role as avenger of all evil. Yet she's no mere Bernard Goetz--or, more to the point, we're made privy to the interiors that could forge something like a Goetz in an expressionistic explosion of the "overactive imagination" that Goetz's defense attorneys used to explain extreme statements by their client. (Indeed, Goetz's subway vigilantism is recreated in a scene herein, except that Erica kills the gangstaz whereas Goetz only crippled them.) This New York isn't the forlorn realism of Scorsese's Taxi Driver--it's a Frank Miller dreamscape of a city destroyed by fear. And lest we forget that Foster was the maiden in Taxi Driver (and the offended in The Accused), it's even a fair read that Erica is the avatar for Foster's role front and centre in our collective victim/victimizer culture.
Erica's secret identity is a radio talk-show host, dripping caramel into the airwaves about the horrors of cities that never sleep--forging a bond in the small, insomniac hours with Mercer through meditations on how The Vigilante has polarized the population and made urban life, Mercer will admit, a little safer, if only in perception. But just like one anticipates Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight will do in a few months, The Brave One calculates the toll of escalation wrought by the introduction of a freak into the social organism of a city, ending on a dizzying flight through alleyways littered with Erica's victims. Not a Death Wish redux (like Death Sentence, for instance), the picture is a desperate dream of empowerment taking place in a New York City that, like Goetz's crime-wave riding act of nutso gunslinger bravado, is undergoing a little of the old identity crisis in what Art Spiegelman calls the shadow of no towers. Infected with the ennui and the broken, imperfect heroes of its brothers in graphic ink, it's a sketch of our fear of villains with a thousand faces and dreams of close-cropped, muscle-shirted saviours. The Brave One is an exceptional superhero flick and a good candidate for a triple-feature with Superman Returns and Batman Begins; Jordan's finally realized the literal comic-book movie he's been threatening for a career. It's already due for a re-evaluation.
Warner brings The Butcher Boy to DVD in a handsome 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer free of artifacts and colour bleed. The blacks are black while the picture's purposefully muted palette is preserved with fidelity. The DD 5.1 audio doesn't offer any surprises but is perfectly adequate for what's asked of it. Four deleted scenes offer a broader window into adult Francie's last day in the asylum; their excision all but confirms that Jordan, cannily, is more involved in the creation myth than in the matriculation into sobriety. Still, they're worthwhile for, if nothing else, more of Rea in his floppy blond wig. Jordan chimes in with a feature-length yakker that boasts a few valuable insights (particularly that child actors sometimes imitate their directors) yet too many long silences for my taste. The Butcher Boy's theatrical trailer rounds out the presentation.
The same studio's release of The Brave One features an iffy 2.40:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer that would appear to betray Warner's dwindling interest in their standard-defintion output. It's washed-out and at times pixellated but overall more mediocre than unwatchable; Rousselot's cinematography is probably done justice on Blu-ray but nevertheless deserves better here. The DD 5.1 audio, however slick, is not very impactful, and Erica's broadcasts are sometimes a struggle to hear. Extras include "I Walk the City" (21 mins.), a by-the-numbers making-of featurette that does contain a few pockets of interest, such as Jordan invoking the name of Sam Fuller and Foster unequivocally stating that she believes her character is in the wrong. A 6-minute block of 5 additional scenes makes Jane Adams's exit from the film less abrupt (she cluelessly takes Foster's Erica to a self-defense class, effectively ending the friendship right there; not a bad sequence, really) and reveals more about Mercer's ex-wife. Trailers for Michael Clayton, Get Smart, Shoot 'em Up, and The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford start up upon insertion of the disc. Originally published: March 6, 2008.
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