Director: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Kerry Condon, Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson
If you didn’t know Martin McDonagh was a playwright you would assume it in the watching of his fourth – and most accomplished – feature, The Banshees of Inisherin. The bountiful witticisms and idiomatic turns of phrase ensconce a morality tale of the classically austere variety, one reflected in the chilly topography of its craggy island (but not Craggy Island) setting.
McDonagh’s fictional isle of Inisherin sits in spitting distance of the Irish mainland, where the concussions of rifle fire intermittently announce the country’s civil war (it’s 1923). But a civil war is brewing in the midst of this isolated community; the setting for an arch yet fascinating study of human decency. And human cruelty.
Amiable farmer Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and gloomy fiddler Colm (Brendan Gleeson) were friends but now they’re not. Pádraic is stunned. What has he done? He arrives as he always does to walk with his friend to the pub as the clock chimes 2pm, but Colm would rather stay home and smoke. What could’ve changed since yesterday?
In confessional, Colm is counselled on recent bouts of despair, and Pádraic – along with his diligent, smarter sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) – assume he has fallen into depression, but Colm himself counters with his own compelling argument. Eyeing his own mortality, Colm has decided to focus his remaining years on his music in an effort to create something that might outlast him. In a crueller fashion, he swears to severe his own fingers one-by-one should Pádraic disrespect his request for silence between them.
Pádraic prides himself on his own good nature; his general ‘niceness’, and is openly wounded by the sudden loss of a dear friend. The repercussions of Colm’s ultimatum echo out through the entire running time of The Banshees of Inisherin, a film both achingly hilarious and, well, just plain aching. Those of us prone to paranoia will appreciate the way Farrell handles Pádraic’s immediate crisis. Has he always been dull? Is he stupid? Is this what the world thinks of him?
Colm’s decision – presented to Pádraic as a rebuke of his character – seems thornier than his rather mean-spirited put downs. The interminable nature of small, knitted communities is well known to me. The drudgery. The gossip. The contempt and widespread alcoholism. Colm’s decision is catalyst for change as well as a challenge to Pádraic – whom he still evidently cares about – to force Inisherin into a new phase of being.
Along the way there are plenty of side-splitting interactions and altercations, but McDonagh uses these as palette-cleansers for an altogether more acidic piece of work. There’s an entire, breathing world in the relationship between local dimwit Dominic (Barry Keoghan) and his wicked and abusive father Peadar (Gary Lydon); a brute who also just happens to be the isle’s policeman. Overseeing all of this, meanwhile, is witchy old crone Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton) whose ghoulish presence furthers the sense of classic theatre unfolding on a cinema screen. Her grim appearances feel like the spectre of death waiting, vulture-like, for any bloodshed to come. She’s a living(?) embodiment of schadenfreude.
It’s great having an excuse for Farrell and Gleeson to spark off of one another again, but this is Farrell’s show. Once Colm has made his position clear, he retreats to the shadows – or tries to – and McDonagh makes Pádraic’s crisis the focus of the film. The appealing trailer for Banshees makes light of the layers that Farrell puts into the work. What could have been an affable Father Dougal routine is rendered far more human, far more humble, far more compelling. Farrell won for his acting at Venice and its earned.
In the process – and rather openly so as not to lose anyone – McDonagh asks what is the value of niceness? Quantifying that can be a tricky thing in the face of Colm’s world-weary cynicism, so Banshees evidences its argument in portraying its absence. As Pádraic loses faith in his own identity, the course of things notably darkens and a lot of the merry humour recedes with it. The third act of Banshees is often times quite mirthless, and those expecting a good giggle all the way might be disarmed by the more dour, thought-provoking sermon they’re ultimately dealt. But it does percolate in the aftermath. You may have as many questions as Pádraic does. Banshees opens the doors to a number of avenues of enquiry, but doesn’t always guide you all the way.
In the main this is one of the year’s more giving experiences. Ben Davis’ gorgeous cinematography recalls the handsome darks and coloured landscapes of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The Banshees of Inisherin is as prone to simple, beautiful visual poetry. On the score, meanwhile, the great Carter Burwell pays fealty to the folk music within the film as well as the sense of parable McDonagh expresses in his thoughtful writing. For a while – and while it was playing so effortlessly to the crowd – I was given to thoughts that this might be the film of the year.
That third act gives me pause, however. Not for any outright missteps or tonal clashes, but having judiciously placated his audience for so much of the running time, McDonagh takes those comforts away and I missed them. While I appreciate the turns he takes to get to the point he wants, I – like Pádraic – found myself lost in a world turned meaner than I’d expected. One might well argue that this is McDonagh’s point proven. I tend to write these words quick in the aftermath of a viewing and, while I’ve slept on Banshees, I feel I’ve yet more sleeping to do before it settles into something I’m truly comfortable with.
For now, take that as its own endorsement. Cinema that entertains and preoccupies as much as this is, frankly, a gift.