The Banshees of Inisherin benefits from its lead characters’ unconventional dynamic, thoughtfully examining the ways in which individuals navigate the nuances of life within their community.
They aren’t having a row — Colm (Brendan Gleeson) just doesn’t feel like talking to his best friend Pádraic (Colin Farrell) anymore. That’s the simple setup for playwright and director Martin McDonagh’s almost fable-like fifth feature film. At the outset, amid some gorgeous aerial shots of the Irish countryside, we spot Pádraic walking down the same windy path that he does every day around two o’clock in the afternoon, sauntering up to Colm’s window and inviting him for a pint at the local pub. Except on this day, Colm ignores Pádraic; he sits stoically smoking inside, preferring the company of his trusted border collie to his puppy-eyed friend outside. Pádraic’s bewilderment at Colm’s unexpected snub sets in motion a series of (increasingly) darkly comic consequences that reverberate throughout the men’s small village.
Off the foggy shores of the made-up Irish island where The Banshees of Inisherin is set, we often hear gunfire, and characters sometimes make mention of the “Civil War” and the IRA. It’s 1923, and the fraught relationship between these two former friends on Inisherin is made to become a metaphor for the conflict that’s playing out on the Irish mainland. But the meaning is also even more malleable than that: McDonagh wants to look deeper at the creeping social and personal anxieties that can slowly tear at the fabric of a seemingly idyllic society. As Colm later explains, his intention in cutting Pádraic out isn’t one of unthinking meanness; he simply doesn’t want to waste away his days “chatting” with someone whom he’s begun to see as much duller than himself. But Pádraic questions that motive, and begins to see Colm as depressed — as does the local priest, who repeatedly asks, during weekly confessional, “How’s the despair?”
McDonagh seems noticeably more at home writing for characters with a strong Irish brogue than he was navigating the sociopolitical and class nuances of midwest America in his previous feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, even if some familiar weaknesses are present here: an overreliance on characters just repeating the same line at each other until it becomes funny, and a penchant for violence that would be more impactful if it were deployed just a bit more sparingly. There’s also one immaculately written and delivered joke involving a bread truck that made me laugh harder than I have at anything in a movie in years (and the audience I saw it with were left in a similarly hysterical state). What seems to elevate The Banshees of Inisherin most, though, is the dynamic brought by Farrell and Gleeson, and how it becomes a kind of reverse-engineered version of their roles in McDonagh’s earlier In Bruges. Instead of the standard odd-couple film, with two eccentric individuals finding common middle ground, here we get the less-typical pairing of two characters who go through their own distinct arcs in parallel.
This approach allows an expansion of the thematic and emotional scope of The Banshees of Inisherin, as both Farrell and Gleeson ably sell their respective characters’ sides of this conflict. For Farrell, the role of the dim sad sack loser could almost be second nature at this point, but the actor never lets the patheticness and plain futility of Pádraic’s efforts to win back Colm come without an understanding of the belief in the earnesty that guides that behavior — which makes his gradual disavowal of his most cherished social ethic that much more affecting. Gleeson, meanwhile, has to walk the line of making Colm’s passive-aggressiveness feel like a necessary act of self-preservation, while also grappling with the selfishness of the increasingly extreme actions that he takes to drive away Pádraic. Allowing these two perspectives to vie for victory over the course of The Banshees of Inisherin leads to a film that’s attentive to the range of ways that individuals cope with the nuances of life as part of a community, and affords McDonagh’s latest the shades of introspection that most of his other films can’t quite match.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Distpach 7.