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. 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." 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.Eamonn Owens as Francie Brady
Stephen Rea as Benny Brady (Da) / Adult Francie (uncredited)
Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Nugent
Andrew Fullerton as Phillip Nugent
Aisling O'Sullivan as Annie Brady (Ma)
Alan Boyle as Joe Purcell
Seán McGinley as Sergeant
Ian Hart as Uncle Alo
Brendan Gleeson as Father Bubbles
Milo O'Shea as Father Sullivan
Sinéad O'Connor as Virgin Mary / Colleen
Gina Moxley as Mary
John Kavanagh as Doctor Boyd
Niall Buggy as Father Dom
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 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."
Patrick McCabe's accomplishment with The Butcher Boy was deemed unattainable in a film. 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. Jordan cast McCabe in the role of town drunk Jimmy the Skite.
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.
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. 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." 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." Emanuel Levy at Variety says it is "Neil Jordan's most accomplished and brilliant film to date."
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.
The Butcher Boy won the following awards:
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.
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.