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The Butcher Boy

Digital Video Discs debuted in the American marketplace on March 19, 1997 when Lumivision (a now defunct label) released Africa: The Serengeti, Antarctica: An Adventure of a Different Nature, Tropical Rainforest, and Animation Greats. Warner Home Video, the company that was fundamental in getting DVD players in homes, reached the market a week later. And with Warren Lieberfarb keeping the prices low, and working in tandem with Wal-Mart, eventually the marketplace would antiquate videotapes and Laserdiscs, with the DVD-R and Tivo offering many (though not all) of the same benefits. But, for those who remember, the format took a while to find its footing. There were numerous kinks to be ironed out. It wasn't until Terminator 2 was released in late 1997 that the dual-layered DVD (offering four hours of content per side, instead of just two) hit the marketplace, which meant some of the earliest discs released (like the first edition of The Wild Bunch) were double-sided "flippers." And before the preponderance of 16x9 televisions, many of the releases were either not anamorphic, or full-screen only. On top of that, many of the titles of that era were not automatically put onto DVD as they would be now, which meant that a few slipped through the cracks — the market still too fresh for oddball or arty items. One of those was 1997's The Butcher Boy, which — after the ten years of DVD — is finally digital.

Eamonn Owens stars in The Butcher Boy as Francis "Francie" Brady, an Irish boy who's introduced covered in bandages, and who often uses the pseudonym "Algernon Carruthers." He narrates (as an adult, and voiced by Stephen Rea) his journey and suggests that all of his problems are due to Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), who doesn't like Francie picking on her son Philip (Andrew Fullerton), which Francie blames on her putting on airs since she came back from London. His father (Rea) is a drunk who beats him, and his mother (Aisling O'Sullivan) is on the verge of suicide because of their dysfunctional family. After a tough night of yelling and hitting after uncle Alo (Ian Hart) shows up, Francie runs away for a bit, only to return to his mother's funeral. This lands him in the church's care, under the watchful eye of Father Bubbles (Brendan Gleason) and the more lecherous eye of Father Sullivan (Milo O'Shea). While farming, he sees the Virgin Mary (Sinead O'Connor), who eventually talks to him, while Sullivan's pederast behavior gets Francie out of the orphanage. He returns home, but the letter his best friend Joe (Alan Purcell) sent him suggests Joe's now best friends with Philip. When Joe and Francie get a chance to hang out, Francie shows that the years of abuse have left him damaged, and he can't help but make Joe uncomfortable. The situation is even grimmer at home — his father has killed himself, but Francie hasn't told anyone. The story gets much darker after his father's body is discovered at their house and Francie is shipped off to an asylum, which spurs his murderous rage against Mrs. Nugent.

*          *          *

Neil Jordan's journey into a homicidal child's life is a darkly brilliant trip and — as Jordan intimates on the commentary track, it's the flip-side of who author Patrick McCabe could have been had he not discovered the ability to write. From its fertile imagery to its playful tone, The Butcher Boy is one of the great cinematic explorations of childhood, ranking with the likes of Truffaut and Satyajit Ray as one of the finest films about upended underclass youths, though the absolute bleakest side of those narratives. Like the movie itself, Neil Jordan's reputation has suffered from lack of exposure. After gaining prominence with The Crying Game (1992) and winning an Oscar for that film, he tried out Hollywood with Interview with the Vampire (1994), Michael Collins (1996), and In Dreams (1999), but returned to the small scale with ingenious The End of the Affair (1999) and has since worked in a more intimate setting (his remake of Melville's Bob Le Flambeur as The Good Thief was excellent, as was his 2005 project Breakfast on Pluto), and those more recent pictures reveal Jordan's genius at subtle portrayals of skewed people who are fascinating in spite of — or because of — their corruptions. Jordan has returned to Hollywood recently, directing a movie with Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard, but his prominence as one of the great international filmmakers — especially after The Butcher Boy — is indisputable.

Ten years after the movie's release, almost to the day, The Butcher Boy finally reached DVD, which is something of a triumph. At the time of the title's home video debut, it could have been on DVD, since Warner was putting out some — but not all — of its recent holdings in the format (including 1998's Dangerous Beauty, which has since fallen into the ether). Instead, The Butcher Boy was released on VHS and Laserdisc, a format which shortly thereafter died. Now that DVD is facing its steepest competition (with the introduction of Blu-Ray and HD-DVD into the marketplace), it will be interesting to see if The Butcher Boy somehow acts as a parallel between the ten-year rise and inevitable decline of the DVD. Only time will tell. Warner's DVD presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The transfer is as should be expected: excellent. Extras include an illuminating commentary by director Neil Jordan, three deleted scenes (3 min.) and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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