The Banshees of Inisherin is a fascinating, funny, sad, surprisingly contemplative movie about friendship, war and the very point of life. It is a dark comedy looking at the aftereffects of the forced ending of a friendship, along with the way the reactions of the men involved trickle down to those around them. Once again, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson make for an excellent pairing. Their odd couple chemistry is perfect for this story. Writer/director Martin McDonagh (who also directed the stars in the fantastic In Bruges) has created something that plays like a parable; it feels real and unreal at the same time, bringing it almost into the realm of myth. Despite being really enjoyable on first viewing, this definitely feels like a movie that will only become richer and more effecting upon repeat viewings.
It is set on the (fictional) island of Inisherin, off the coast of Ireland, in 1923, during the Irish Civil War. The sounds of fighting from the mainland regularly disturb the relative quiet of the island. Colm and Pádraic have been friends forever, though they don’t have much in common besides both being stuck on Inisherin. One day, Colm calmly tells Pádraic he doesn’t like him anymore and wants to be left alone from now on. This seemingly minor event changes everything.
That’s basically it for plot. The Banshees of Inisherin (108 minutes, without the end credits) establishes this in its opening moments, thus giving McDonagh plenty of time to look at Colm and Pádraic, as well as the rest of the residents. Most notably, that includes Pádraic’s sister, Siobhan, and Dominic, the largely shunned son of the local policeman. This is a quirky, go nowhere, smalltown, which turns out to be an ideal place for a metaphor about war. One of the running gags is that Colm just wants to work on his music, but he keeps being interrupted by Pádraic’s neediness.
An interesting aspect of the screenplay is how McDonagh splits our sympathies between the two men. Colm tells Pádraic that he doesn’t want to be friends with him because he is dull. Life is too short to spend it listening to dull stories. That is, as he himself admits, quite mean. However, in fairness, Pádraic is a bit dim, albeit nice and friendly. Colm isn’t sick or dying. He hasn’t experienced some unspeakable trauma. The problem appears to be that he wants more than his existence has to offer. Since he can’t drastically change things, the best he can do is cut out someone who is representative of his despair. This is actually kind of reasonable, when it comes down to it.
That said, Pádraic’s devastated reaction to his longtime friend now wanting nothing to do with him, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong, is also understandable. While it would be easier if he did as the man says and stopped bugging Colm, the lengths Colm goes to in order to make his point are very much on the extreme side. The movie gives equal weight to each viewpoint, making for a balanced conflict.
The landscape is beautiful, if repetitive. Their world is made up of farms, fields and a single pub, where the men gather every day. Between that and the war going on around them, it makes sense that someone could feel trapped there. That is probably the case for Colm, but it is certainly the case for Siobhan. A smart, well-read, woman, she finds all the men on Inisherin dull. She lives with her brother, who she does love. Still, she has had to accept this as all there is for her, at least until Colm’s rejection of Pádraic causes her to rethink things.
McDonagh’s wisest decision is to let his actors carry the emotions, sometimes without dialogue. Brendan Gleeson as Colm and Colin Farrell as Pádraic are both wonderful. Gleeson underplays, letting his exasperation show through shoulder-shrugs and sighs. Farrell is far more animated, yet his confusion at his life suddenly changing for the worse is expressed with his eyebrows as much as with what he says. They do incredible work with material that could have veered toward farce if played too broadly.
Kerry Condon stands toe-to-toe with them as Siobhan and Barry Keoghan does maybe his best work so far as Dominic. Dominic is considered to be dumb and reckless, consistently blurting out offensive things. Keoghan makes that funny, while hinting at the lonely, damaged young man underneath. It is a really touching performance.
Martin McDonagh’s movies feel specifically his. They are articulate, thoughtful, weird and funny in the way they explore serious issues in indirect ways. I always come away wanting to watch them again; not just because they are good. Mostly because it feels like there is something profound contained in them, lurking within the peculiarities.
4½ out of 5
Colin Farrell as Pádraic Súilleabháin
Brendan Gleeson as Colm Doherty
Kerry Condon as Siobhan Súilleabháin
Barry Keoghan as Dominic Kearney
Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh