While I may be a little iffy when it comes to the films of Martin McDonagh, his latest, “The Banshees of Inisherin” is pretty great and my favorite film of his to date. It’s McDonagh’s most intimate, most soulful, and most mature movie, yet it still features many of the trademarks his fans (and critics) will look for. It’s built on the back of one of the best screenplays of the year – one that ushers us down a dark and twisted path, yet has us laughing every step of the way.
McDonagh reteams with two of his favorites, a sublime Colin Farrell (what a year he’s had) and Brendan Gleeson, one of the most reliably great actors working today. The two stars were a fantastic pair in McDonagh’s 2008 hoot “In Bruges”. Together again, they make for another captivating duo in “Banshees” and once again they’re in perfect sync with McDonagh’s mordant sensibility.
“Banshees” is a movie that lives and breathes in the mundanity of life. It examines humanity through petty grievances. It pits the desire to be alone against the need for companionship. It asks the strangely fascinating question – what’s more important, being nice or being remembered? Why not be both, you ask? That’s a question never posed on Inisherin, a small fictional isle sitting close enough to the Irish mainland to see and hear the sounds of civil war, yet sits far enough away to feel like a world all its own.
Set in 1923, McDonagh greets us with a stunner of an opener as his camera introduces us to Inisherin, with its lush green grass, jagged cliffs, long sandy beaches, endless stone fencing, and handful of cozy rustic cottages. And of course there’s the hub of all social activity – the local pub, where everything can be celebrated, mourned, or hashed out over a pint of Guinness. Well, almost everything.
In this small, tight-knit, and delightfully eccentric community, Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell) and Colm Doherty (Gleeson) have long been best friends. But something has changed, quite literally overnight. Colm comes to the conclusion that he no longer wants to be friends with Pádraic. “I just don’t like ya no more,” is the only explanation he gives. But that’s not enough for Pádraic, an all-around nice guy who’s perfectly content with his simple, unremarkable life on the island (so much so that he’s earned the reputation of being a bit dull).
But the older Colm has found himself in an existential malaise. Convinced he hasn’t much time left (12 years to be exact), Colm has dreams that reach beyond Inisherin – not far beyond, but beyond nonetheless. He wants to do something people will remember, and sitting around listening to Pádraic ramble on about donkey manure isn’t helping him reach that goal. So he ends their friendship and trades his best friend for his fiddle.
But the earnest and genuinely perplexed Pádraic keeps coming around, sure that his former friend will eventually snap out of his funk. Fed up, Colm does what any of us would do if we existed in a Martin McDonagh film. He warns that every time Pádraic bothers him, he’ll hack off one of his own fingers. You’d think that would be a deterrent, but (again) this is a Martin McDonagh film. So the story takes a darker turn, and what started as simple spat soon spirals completely out of control.
Pádraic tries to fill his best friend vacancy by hanging out with Dominic (a perfectly cast Barry Keoghan), the simple, girl-crazy village outcast. He’s been tossed aside by the townsfolk, yet he may be the most honest of the bunch. Keoghan’s line delivery and mannerisms are so precise they make Dominic one of the funniest, definitely the saddest, and in many ways the most tragic figure in the film.
Another key player is Pádraic’s loving yet long-suffering sister, Siobhán (a stellar Kerry Condon). She lives with her brother and his miniature donkey named Jenny, looking after him and taking up for him. Empowered by Condon’s warmth and vigor, Siobhán’s motherly bond with Pádraic is both sweet and constraining. Opportunities for a richer life are calling her from the mainland. But how does she leave behind her dear brother and only sibling?
There are so many other quirky and colorful community members who’ll show up from time to time. But it all comes back to Pádraic, Colm, and the two Oscar-worthy performances behind them. Farrell with his perpetually furrowed brow, sad eyes, and whimsical charm. Gleeson with his world-wearied face, stoic gruffness, and melancholy gaze. They have a beguiling chemistry, and together they imbue this proudly Irish production with an acerbic wit and a firm gut punch that you’ll be feeling for days after. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is no showing in select theaters.