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Eire Jordan.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  "The children are our future." It's a line you hear a lot—from politicians, teachers, Whitney Houston, and so forth. Well, yeah. No kidding. But what kind of future is it? Strip away the treacle that usually accompanies the pronouncement, and you'll find it's just a plain ol' tautology, promising neither good nor evil. It's usually said optimistically, as if children will automatically grow up to do good things just because they're so innocent right now. As if Hitler was never a kid. Or Charles Manson.

Or Francie Brady, the title anti-hero of The Butcher Boy (1998, R). The latest offering from Irish fabulist Neil Jordan—best-known for The Crying Game—is an ultimately harrowing film that is nonetheless funny and even breezy. It's the story of the aforementioned boy named Brady, a denizen of small-town Ireland in the early 1960s. Whip-smart and perennially cheerful, Francie (a jaw-dropping performance by carrot-topped Eamonn Owens) is always trying to put the best spin on his family life, but it's hard—his father's a drunk and his mother's suicidal. Francie, along with his pal Joe, escapes into games of make-believe and channels his frustration into increasingly unreasonable anger at a neighboring family. Jordan chronicles the boy's descent into something close to madness with an absurdist's eye. Among other fantastical touches, Francie starts to have visions of the Virgin Mary (Sinead O'Connor, in the most daring casting of the year). The movie's tone takes some adjusting to—especially the balance between Francie's irreverent, engaging voice-overs and his worrisome on-screen acts—but Jordan mostly makes it work. He's spinning a yarn, but one with a clear moral—if the children we bet our future on are anything like Francie Brady, we're all in big trouble.

The film is most reminiscent of Jordan's most baroque movie, The Company of Wolves (1985, R). Part fairy tale and part horror show, the dreamlike film lifts the skirts of the Red Riding Hood story for an allegory about sexual awakening and the lure of the forbidden. Angela Lansbury does a nice, mysterious turn as the cautionary grandmother, and Crying Game star Stephen Rea (who's also in The Butcher Boy) shows up as a werewolf. It's an elliptical and evocative movie, much more haunting than Jordan's Hollywood-ized adaptation of Interview With the Vampire.

Fairy tales aren't Jordan's only trick. One of his best films is Mona Lisa (1986, R), a stripped-down drama about a chauffeur (Bob Hoskins) smitten with the call girl (Cathy Tyson) he's paid to transport. Gritty and sad but also romantic, it's a sympathetic portrait of loneliness.

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