'The Banshees of Inisherin': A Darkly Funny Tale of a Dissolving Friendship
With his debut feature, In Bruges, Martin McDonagh demonstrates his innate ability to balance comedy and tragedy, and delivered a film that is both extremely dark and extremely funny. In addition, the film features two great performances by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, with the former winning a Golden Globe for his work in it. 14 years later, McDonagh has reunited Farrell and Gleeson to once again deliver an extremely dark and extremely funny film, that will likely lead to some awards buzz for both actors. In some ways, The Banshees of Inisherin feels like a bit of a homecoming for McDonagh, as it is set in his native Ireland, and feels like a return to form for him. While his other two films, 2012's Seven Psychopaths and 2017's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri were well-received, I felt that these were a slight step down from In Bruges. It felt like McDonagh was getting a bit too ambitious, and that these films were a bit less focused and not as tonally balanced. But with Banshees, he finds the right balance between comedy and tragedy again, and gives us what might be his most powerful (and arguably his best) film to date.
On an island off the coast of Ireland called Inisherin, a man named Pádraic (Colin Farrell) is upset when his lifelong friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) suddenly decides to end their friendship. Pádraic is a simple man, and is well-liked by the citizens of Inisherin, but Colm finds him dull, and wants to spend more time focusing on composing music. Pádraic is at a loss, and is torn between trying to get his best friend back and respecting his wishes by staying away from him. This leads to Colm giving him a shocking ultimatum that could have dangerous consequences for the two former friends.
The basic premise of the film is simple, but the ideas that McDonagh is reckoning with are rather deep and radiate throughout the film. At the core of the film is the concept of kindness. There have been many films and TV shows that have been made in the past few years about the power of being kind, but McDonagh takes a different approach, and shows the limitations that simply being kind can have. One can't help that McDonagh has seen some of the media that overly glorifies niceness, and that Banshees is a bit of a response to this. The film shows that kindness is important, but it doesn't solve everything. It posits that you can't just be nice to someone and expect everything to be okay, and that other approaches and actions are often necessary to truly make a difference. It is so simply illustrated in the friendship between Pádraic and Colm, as Pádraic's limited perspective and good nature clashes with Colm's wants and needs, leading him to end the friendship.
It is here where McDonagh touches on the idea of legacy, and whether it is more important to be thought of as a good person, or to actually make an impact on the world with your true passion in life. Colm is abundantly clear that he wants to focus on his music, and to try and make something truly great and lasting, while Pádraic is more concerned with being well-liked and maintaining a status quo. Through the film, we explore how Colm's decision affects Pádraic's actions, and in turn, how Pádraic's actions keep Colm from accomplishing his life's work. McDonagh illustrates this in a dark, shocking way that I won't spoil here, but suffice it to say that he gets this point across clearly and effectively.
The film also explores depression, but it does so in a way that is subtle and seemingly pushes it aside. This is 100 percent intentional, and reflective of how depression was viewed at the time, as well as how some people (mostly men) continue to view it to this day. We see this primarily through the character of Colm, as he tries to ignore his depression throughout the film. In an early scene of the film, Colm is talking to a Priest in a confessional. The Priest asks him about "the despair", to which Colm gives a brief response before changing the subject. This scene is one of the few times the film acknowledges depression, but it is such an important detail, as it plays into the film's larger themes of kindness and dissolving friendships. Colm keeps his depression to himself, and while Pádraic has clearly been a loyal friend to him over the years, it's not enough to give Colm what he needs, thus leading to the end of the friendship. Between Colm not talking about this, and Pádraic's lack of understanding regarding the whole situation, it is a rather accurate depiction of how most men deal with mental health issues. Most men tend to bottle up their feelings and deal with them in unhealthy ways, or they just have zero understanding of what things like depression actually are. It's not like this is a new observation or anything, but it is such a great representation of it on McDonagh's part.
McDonagh has long been a well-respected writer, as he was a successful playwright before he made his first film. He is a consistently good writer, but The Banshees of Inisherin might be his best screenplay yet. It is rather meticulously crafted, and is an excellent encapsulation of McDonagh's strengths as a writer. The dialogue is very quick and sharply written, and it is injected with McDonagh's signature dark humor. There are some lines in here that are incredibly funny, but then, there are lines that feel like a gutpunch. The control that McDonagh has over the tone of the film is masterful. The fact that he is able to make something that is so hilarious one moment, and so upsetting the next, while still working as well as it does is nothing short of amazing. The characters are also quite well-written, and the relationships between everyone are defined so effortlessly that it adds a sense truth to the film. There is a humanity to the film that allows it to hit as hard as it does, and so much of it comes from how McDonagh writes the island of Inisherin, as well as its inhabitants. It forms a strong foundation for the film, and allows McDonagh to explore its themes in such a full and impactful way.
Much like they did in In Bruges, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson give a pair of excellent performances, which may rank among the best of their respective filmographies. Gleeson is very reined in, but it is such a quietly moving turn that allows him to use his powerful screen presence to great effect. He feels so grounded in the world of the film, which makes him feel like a real person with real wants and needs. It is so easy to connect with his portrayal of Colm, as he embodies so many deeply human desires, such as being remembered and finding happiness. Gleeson's take on him is so engaging, and contributes heavily to the film's emotional core. Colin Farrell is also engaging, and is able to play the neediness of Pádraic without making him annoying. You can't help but sympathize with the character, and so much of that is because of what Farrell is doing with the character. It is easy to understand why Colm wants to end the friendship, but it's hard not to feel for Pádraic as he experiences the confusion and heartbreak of the whole situation. Farrell has such empathy for the character, and has this earnestness about him that plays into Pádraic's good nature quite well. It's so fascinating to watch him, as he is doing some subtle things that end up speaking volumes. It is a top-tier performance from Farrell, and one that I hope gets him a long overdue Oscar nomination.
While Farrell and Gleeson are excellent individually, they are absolutely incredible when they are on screen together. The friction in their relationship is so palpable, and the way both actors play their shifting dynamic is superb. There are many scenes of dialogue between the two that are quite captivating, but one of their best scenes comes in a moment where they don't say anything to each other. Nearly halfway through the film, Colm has ordered Pádraic not to speak to him. A bit later, Pádraic is in town and is attacked by the local policeman after an incident in the pub the night before. Colm happens to be passing through at this moment, and silently helps Pádraic onto his horse drawn cart, and drives the cart for him. Pádraic doesn't say anything, and when they arrive at a fork in the road, begins to cry. Colm simply hands him the reins and goes one way while Pádraic takes the cart the other way. It's a simple scene, but both actors are doing some amazing non-verbal acting here, and you can truly feel the complex emotions that both characters are experiencing in that moment. It may be a bit on the nose in terms of the symbolism that McDonagh is using, but it still struck a chord with me, and is one of my favorite parts of the whole film.
As I stated above, McDonagh does an excellent job writing the characters in the film, and the dynamics between them feel so defined to the point where it feels rather natural. The film's supporting cast is made up of some very talented actors, each of whom bring something to the table to make the world of Inisherin feel so distinct. Almost every actor who appears on screen has at least one great moment in the film, which is quite impressive when you think about it. Of course, two of the biggest standouts are undoubtedly Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon. Keoghan is quickly becoming the go-to guy if you need someone to play a weird character that shows up for a few scenes and steals the show. He has done this in several films over the past few years, and he is quite good at it every single time. In this film, he plays Dominic, a troubled young man who is socially awkward and is abused by his father. Keoghan is doing a lot of interesting things with this character, and gets some of the film's best moments. An early exchange between him and Pádraic is especially memorable, as is a scene where he and Kerry Condon's character Siobhán are having a conversation. Keoghan isn't in much of the film, but he certainly makes his mark on it and gives yet another great scene-stealing performance.
As for Condon, she captures the exasperation that Siobhán has towards Pádraic and Colm's back and forth so well, and is an integral part to the larger points that McDonagh is making. She plays Pádraic's sister, and while she enjoys her life on the island, she feels that there is more for her out there. It somewhat mirrors Colm's desire to do something more with his life, but she also feels like she needs to stay and help Pádraic take care of their family's house. She truly cares for him, but she also feels stuck on the island. Condon embodies this dilemma quite well, and is especially great in her scenes with Farrell, as the mix of love and frustration she has towards him adds an interesting layer to their dynamic, and to Siobhán as a character.
A lot of the film's minor characters are also great, but none grabbed me the way that the character of Mrs. McCormick did. Played by Sheila Flitton, Mrs. McCormick is an older, mysterious woman on the island, who has this otherworldly presence every time she appears on screen. This character could have easily felt out of place in the film, but Flitton grounds her just enough to where she feels like a part of the island, but also plays with her being this almost supernatural force in the context of the film. It helps that Flitton is made up and costumed to appear almost witch-like, but it is the gentleness that she brings to the character that makes her a bit unsettling, but strangely magnetic as well.
While the film is a reunion for McDonagh and its two leads, the film also marks yet another collaboration between him and composer Carter Burwell, as well as cinematographer Ben Davis. Burwell has composed all of McDonagh's films to date, and it is clear that the two enjoy working together. Burwell's score here is moody, and heavily inspired by Irish folk music. It's the type of score that sinks into what we are seeing on screen, and much like the film itself, it is quietly powerful. As for the cinematography, Ben Davis captures the beauty of the Irish coast, while also allowing the film's color palette to reflect the complicated emotions at its center. Davis is an incredible cinematographer, and this just might be the best of his three collaborations with McDonagh.
As I left the theater after watching The Banshees of Inisherin, I was a little unsure how to feel. The film is such a heavy blend of comedy and tragedy that it knocked me out and I needed some time to process it. After sitting with it for a while, it has only grown on me more and more. I can't recall the last time I saw a film that made me laugh while also being absolutely heartbreaking. It is such a bleak film, yet it is quite beautiful all the same. I anticipate this film weighing on me for the next few days, as the more I sit and think on it, the more I appreciate and admire it. It is such an incredible, understated film that left me gobsmacked. This film acts as a perfect encapsulation of Martin McDonagh's style and sensibilities, and no one else could have pulled this off besides him.