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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“Mack The Knife,” Sinead O’Connor as the Virgin Mary, and a boy gone mad

Illustration for article titled “Mack The Knife,” Sinead O’Connor as the Virgin Mary, and a boy gone mad

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: While Ryan Reynolds wrestles with insanity (and talking pets) in The Voices, we recommend other films about mental illness.


The Butcher Boy (1997)

The opening music cue in The Butcher Boy is a sly clue as to what lies ahead: It’s the jaunty, early ’60s-ish bounce of Brecht/Weill’s “Mack The Knife,” from The Threepenny Opera, announcing the killer Macheath. The protagonist of The Butcher Boy, Francie Brady (a remarkable Eamonn Owens), does not start out a killer. At the beginning of the film he’s what the charitable might call “a spirited lad” and the less so might deem “a pain in the ass.” The high jinks he gets up to with his best friend Joe are no more or less than normal kid stuff.

Before long, it’s clear that the almost desperately breezy tone writer-director Neil Jordan establishes is meant to offset Francie’s dire home life. His ma (Aisling O’Sullivan) would likely be diagnosed with bipolar disorder today, but in the film’s time frame she “breaks down” and is sent to, by Francie’s reckoning, “the garage” to be “fixed.” Francie’s da (Stephen Rea) is a former musician, now full-time alcoholic, who beats both Francie and his ma. Francie’s only escape is in his escapades with Joe, fueled by their mutual fascination with comic books, Westerns, and nuclear war.

Working from Patrick McCabe’s novel, Jordan walks a very fine tightrope with the tone, using seemingly blithe voice-over and dialogue, sprightly music cues in the vein of the opening cover, and the purposely, ever-so-slightly excessive nostalgic beauty of Adrian Biddle’s cinematography in opposition to the horrors visited upon Francie. The difficulty curve here is in always making it clear that this contrast is counterpoint and not mockery. Jordan’s success is evident in how horrifying the film is, and in how much sadder Francie’s descent into madness becomes. (By the film’s end, his only companion is a hallucination of the Virgin Mary, played by noted friend of the Catholic Church Sinead O’Connor.)

Left unsaid, and for the audience to infer, is that the shared and possibly inherited mental illness that plagues the Brady family was only exacerbated by living in a time and place that had no frame of reference whatsoever to deal with anything out of the ordinary. Unless it was charming, like Francie. Until he wasn’t.

Availability: The Butcher Boy is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase from the major digital services.