The Butcher Boy (1997 film)

The Butcher Boy

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Neil Jordan
Produced by Redmond Morris
Stephen Woolley
Screenplay by Patrick McCabe
Neil Jordan
Based on The Butcher Boy
by Patrick McCabe
Starring Stephen Rea
Fiona Shaw
Eamonn Owens
Music by Elliot Goldenthal
Cinematography Adrian Biddle
Edited by Tony Lawson
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • 13 July 1997 (1997-07-13) (Ireland)
  • 20 February 1998 (1998-02-20) (UK)
  • 3 April 1998 (1998-04-03) (US)


Running time
110 minutes
Country Ireland
United States
Language English
Box office $1,963,654[1]

The Butcher Boy is an 1997 Irish tragicomic drama film adapted to film by Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe from McCabe's 1992 novel of the same name.[2]

Set in the early 1960s, The Butcher Boy is about Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens), a 12-year-old boy who retreats into a violent fantasy world to escape the reality of his dysfunctional family; as his circumstances worsen, his sanity deteriorates and he begins acting out, with increasing brutality. The film won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 48th Berlin International Film Festival in 1998 and a Special Mention for Owens' "astonishing lead". It also won the European Film Award for Best Cinematographer for Adrian Biddle. The Butcher Boy is Neil Jordan's tenth feature film and Geffen Pictures' final production.


The film is set in Ireland in the early 1960s in the small town of Clones. Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) is a 12-year-old boy whose imagination is fuelled by television - aliens, communists, the Atomic Age.[3] When his mother (Aisling O'Sullivan) suffers a nervous breakdown and ultimately commits suicide, he is left in the care of his father (Stephen Rea), an emotionally distant and ill-tempered alcoholic. Francie spends most of his time with his best friend Joe Purcell (Alan Boyle) talking about "gangsters, cowboys and Indians, comic-book monsters and the early-1960s threat of nuclear annihilation."[4] However, when Francie's growing conflict with another boy, Phillip Nugent (Andrew Fullerton), and his mother (Fiona Shaw) begins to go too far, he ends up at reform school. Here, he is molested by a priest (Milo O'Shea), and finds solace only in his fantasies about a foul-mouthed Virgin Mary (Sinéad O'Connor). He returns home to find Joe has outgrown him and befriended Phillip Nugent. Before long, his father has drunk himself to death. Faced with being left completely alone in the world, Francie loses his grip on reality and lashes out with uncontrollable brutality, which shocks his provincial hometown.[2]



This was the final film produced by Geffen Pictures, which distributed its films through Warner Bros. Geffen Pictures would be sold to Universal Studios years later.

The screen rights to the book were bought by Neil Jordan in 1992 during the filming of Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles.[3] The adaptation is mostly faithful to the novel, but there are some differences, the principal change being the ending. In the book, Francie is not seen to leave prison, and attempts to forge a friendship with an inmate similar to the one he had with Joe. In the film, a much older Francie is released from prison at the end to be brought to a halfway house. He picks a snowdrop, echoing the opening of the film.

Casting the child to play Francie was difficult. With no previous filming experiences, Eamonn Owens and Alan Boyle (who played Francie's best friend, Joe) were found at the local school in Killeshandra in County Cavan where casting assistant Maureen Hughes went to visit her uncle. Owens' younger brother Ciaran was also cast. Jordan cast O'Connor because "she looks like the Virgin Mary."[3]


Patrick McCabe's accomplishment with The Butcher Boy was deemed unattainable in a film.[3][4] During the screenwriting process, author McCabe wrote two drafts that digressed from the original novel, like "planets within planets within planets" according to Neil Jordan, consequently, Jordan wrote the third draft that was more faithful to the novel.[3] Jordan cast McCabe in the role of town drunk Jimmy the Skite.[5]

Neil Jordan captures Francie's schizophrenia by using voice-overs where the adult narrator Francie speaks with the child Francie. Andrew O'Hehir at Salon Entertainment criticizes Jordan and McCabe for an occasional "flavor of an after-school special purveying didactic lessons about abuse and victimization," and losing "the novel's Beckettian ambiguity." However, he argues that Jordan "brings a tenderness and sweetness" to the otherwise unforgiving subject matter.[4]


The reception of the film has been generally good. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes show a 79% rating and an average rating of 7.5/10.[6] Andrew O'Hehir at Salon Entertainment says "Neil Jordan's sweetly tragicomic movie" has "elaborate fantasy sequences [that] feel like irrelevant amusements." He also praises the film as "a compelling exploration of the permeable border between normal childhood and full-on insanity."[4] Jeffrey M. Anderson at Combustible Celluloid calls the film "a roller-coaster ride for your brain. It's the most alive and deeply-felt movie I've seen in 1998."[7] Emanuel Levy at Variety says it is "Neil Jordan's most accomplished and brilliant film to date."[6]

Owens' performance was hailed unanimously; as such, he was awarded a Special Mention at the Berlin Film Festival in 1998.

The cumulative box office according to Variety is $1,963,654.[1]


The Butcher Boy won the following awards:[1]

Award Category Name Outcome
European Film Awards European Film Award for Best Cinematography Adrian Biddle Won
Berlin International Film Festival[8] Silver Bear for Best Director Neil Jordan Won
Special Mention Eamonn Owens Won (for his astonishing lead)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association 1998 Best Music Elliot Goldenthal Won
National Board of Review Awards 1998 Top 10 Films - 6th place


Elliot Goldenthal composed the soundtrack for the film, which was released on CD in 1998. Goldenthal for this score mixes many different music genres and styles, yet this is one of his most melodic scores. The title song is performed by Sinéad O'Connor.

DVD release

A widescreen, closed-captioned version of the film was released on DVD on 13 February 2007 by Warner Home Video. The disc contains deleted scenes and an audio commentary by Neil Jordan.[7]


  1. 1 2 3 4 "The Butcher Boy (1998)". Variety. Variety. Retrieved 30 August 2009. Archived 27 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. 1 2 "Wettbewerb/In Competition". Moving Pictures, Berlinale Extra. Berlin. 11–22 February 1998. pp. 14–16. ISSN 0959-6992.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Byrne, Paul (7 December 1999). "Neil Jordan (The Butcher Boy): The Provocative Son". Retrieved 30 August 2009.
  4. 1 2 3 4 O'Hehir, Andrew (10 April 1998). "The Butcher Boy". Salon Entertainment. Retrieved 30 August 2009.
  5. McKella, Barbara (1998). "Neil Jordan ponders The Butcher Boy". Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review. Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  6. 1 2 "The Butcher Boy (1998)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 30 August 2009.
  7. 1 2 M. Anderson, Jeffrey (12 October 1998). "The Butcher Boy (1998): Off to the Garage". Combustible Celluloid. Retrieved 30 August 2009.
  8. "Berlinale: 1998 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2012-01-15.
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