The Banshees of Inisherin
Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and filmmaker Martin McDonagh reunite after 'In Bruges', this time on a black, contemplative and cracking tragicomedy.
December 16, 2022
In The Banshees of Inisherin, the rolling hills and clifftop fields look like they could stretch on forever, even on a fictional small island perched off the Irish mainland. For years, conversation between Padraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell, After Yang) and Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson, The Tragedy of Macbeth) has been similarly sprawling — and leisurely, too — especially during the pair's daily sojourn to the village pub for chats over pints. But when the latter calls time on their camaraderie suddenly, his demeanour turns brusque and his explanation, only given after much pestering, is curt. Uttered beneath a stern, no-nonsense stare by Gleeson to his In Bruges co-star Farrell, both reuniting with that darkly comic gem's writer/director Martin McDonagh for another black, contemplative and cracking comedy, Colm is as blunt as can be: "I just don't like you no more."
In the elder character's defence, he wanted to ghost his pal without hurtful words. Making an Irish exit from a lifelong friendship is a wee bit difficult on a tiny isle, though, as Colm quickly realises. It's even trickier when the mate he's trying to put behind him is understandably upset and confused, there's been no signs of feud or fray beforehand, and anything beyond the norm echoes through the town faster than a folk ballad. So springs McDonagh's smallest-scale and tightest feature since initially leaping from the stage to the screen, and a wonderful companion piece to that first effort. Following the hitman-focused In Bruges, he's gone broader with Seven Psychopaths, then guided Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell to Oscars with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but he's at his best when his lens is trained at Farrell and Gleeson as they bicker in close confines.
There's no doubting who's behind the camera of The Banshees of Inisherin from the get-go, with McDonagh speedy and concise in setting his scene, and showing his knack for witty dialogue and clever character-building in the process. The year is 1923, and the time — at first — is 2pm on an ordinary day. Except, after Pádraic calls on Colm's fisherman's cottage for their usual bar jaunt and gets no answer, nothing about it plays out as it typically would for the film's two main figures. Pádraic can see Colm sitting inside, in fact, smoking but not opening his door. He tries to talk it through with publican Jonjo (Pat Shortt, Pixie) after heading for a drink anyway, and with his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon, Better Call Saul) later at home. It's the next day when Pádraic gets the response no one wants to hear from the man he thought was his best friend, but that's hardly the end of their rift.
A tragicomedy that lives up to both halves of that term without a whiff of formula, The Banshees of Inisherin twists Pádraic and Colm's hostilities in circles — not to be repetitive or due to any lack of plot, but because life's cycles keep spinning both within the duo's fractured bond and around them. Endings are never easy but neither is life, McDonagh has his film contend, doing so with intelligence, humour and an unshakeable unwillingness to shy away from bleakness. Take the inclusion of village oddball Dominic (Barry Keoghan, The Batman), for example. He buzzes around the movie's central quarrel, endeavouring to use it to become Pádraic's BFF and make his romantic intentions for the single Siobhán known, and he's frequently a source of overt laughs. And yet, as his backstory with his drunk cop dad Peadar (Gary Lydon, Brooklyn) is fleshed out, he proves as sorrowful a resident as Inisherin has, in a feature that sees life's small joys and heartbreaking woes alike with clear eyes.
McDonagh is a master at packaging the grim with the chucklesome, however, as Pádraic's attempts to cope with his rejection convey. The writer/director has his dejected protagonist go through several stages of grief — but once he's done being shocked, denying his friend's rebuffs, getting angry, trying to bargain his way to a new outcome, feeling depressed and hoping Colm will change his mind, seeking revenge becomes his baseline. The alternative: feeling uncomfortable at the pub and in general; and badgering the protective Siobhán to spend more time with him, ignorant to her yearning to leave an island that embodies everything to most of its inhabitants but offers far too little for her. Or, Pádraic can accept his beloved miniature donkey Jenny and the ever-present Dominic as his new chief sources of company.
Simply watching Farrell's eyebrows as Pádraic faces his changing circumstances is entertaining, emotional and evocative; the depths and shades he can relay with a twitch, many actors can't muster with their entire bodies. Watching Gleeson's exhaustion and despair is equally revelatory — indeed, while Farrell plays Pádraic as constantly searching for a silver lining and eagerly proud of being the village nice guy, his co-star conjures up a man who doesn't expect to find anything much to smile about even after making drastic choices. In Bruges sparked it and now The Banshees of Inisherin cements it: Farrell and Gleeson are one of cinema's very-best pairs, and they're mesmerising to an awards-worthy degree here. Also exceptional is Condon as the kind but frustrated woman who can see both sides. "He's always been dull; what's changed?" she replies to Colm when he admits his boredom with Pádraic.
Amid the grand performances, scenery, cinematography (by The King's Man's Ben Davis) and score (from Catherine Called Birdy's Carter Burwell), McDonagh hasn't anchored this griping, one-upping, apologising, pleading and vengeance-seeking a century ago for fun. He hasn't made the move to avoid technology, either, although this'd be a lesser movie with phones and apps fuelling fires and gossip. As poignant and resonant as it is amusing — and sometimes horrifying — The Banshees of Inisherin works sparklingly as an odd-couple decoupling comedy, a slice of insular small-town life, a bittersweet musing on mortality and an interrogation of masculinity, but it's also firmly a product of its homeland. Despite being Irish, this is McDonagh's first film set in the country, and harks back to the 1920s Civil War. The conflict rages across the bay from Inisherin without disrupting the isle's daily life, but Pádraic shouts tellingly at its gunshots: "good luck to you, whatever it is you're fighting about".
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