“Some things, there’s no moving on from. I think that’s a good thing.”
So it goes in Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, a return home and a return to form for the British-Irish writer-director. Set amidst the sprawling bucolic countryside of a barely fictional island off the coast of Ireland, Banshees seems to tell the tale of a crumbling friendship between Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson). But as the pair’s tiff reflects the ongoing Irish Civil War and refracts across the island’s tight-knit population, the film transforms into something far more essential: an examination of the things we fill our life with to stave off existential dread.
For Pádraic, that thing is companionship. So, when the gruff Colm spurns his daily invitation to the J.J. Devine Public House – and offers little more than an “I don’t like you no more” by way of explanation – Pádraic can’t just shrug it off; his entire world is turned just a few degrees off its axis. And in the small community that lives and gossips together on this quiet island, one small ripple can trigger a tsunami of change. Especially when Colm threatens to cut off a finger for each time that Pádraic bothers him – starting with those on his precious fiddle-playing hand.
And that tsunami is a crisis of being. It starts with Colm, whose complaint that his former friend is dull has less to do with Pádraic, and more to do with his own fear of wasting whatever limited time he has left. It washes over Pádraic, who scoffs at his sister’s loneliness early in the film only to confront his own isolation after Colm’s drastic actions leave him without his most essential companion. And it spreads toward the rest of the island: to Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), by far the wisest resident on an island full of “feckin’ boring” men; to the village idiot Dominic (Barry Keoghan), who ping-pongs from an abusive father to makeshift friends who toss insults his way even as they thrown an arm around his shoulder; and even to Dominic’s father Peadar, who seeks purpose in the form of a bounty to go fight on the mainland – though he doesn’t even know which side is paying him, nor does he care.
The futility of war. The futility of arguing. The futility of living. For McDonagh, it’s barely more than pigheadedness that keeps us doing all three.
Farrell is stunning in surprising and subtle ways. He excels on the big occasions – a bout of drunken fury and the aching sadness of grief – but it’s the entire portrait he paints that impresses most, a product of those in-between moments, the ones that make or break whether we see Pádraic as a person or a paper creation. He’s dull without being idiotic; kind without being faultless; innocent without being completely naïve. It builds to a man with a justified anger that’s so foreign to him, he barely knows how he’s supposed to wield it. Farrell puts on this blinding emotion like a baby taking its first steps – slow and shaky, but gaining confidence with every movement. It’s a heartrending performance.
The rest of the cast are near his level, particularly the reserved ferocity of Kerry Condon, and Keoghan, who infuses Dominic with more layered pathos than I would have thought possible for the island dunce. And visually, the film is beyond the director’s latest effort, Three Billboards. It’s not just gorgeous; McDonagh and cinematographer Ben Davis capture the specific melancholic beauty of the island – its harsh and muted magnificence, and how the landscape can isolate you just as easily as it can embrace you.
Ultimately, The Banshees of Inisherin is about nothing more than how hard it is to lose – or not to go after or not even to know in the first place – what it is that defines your life. A job. A passion. A companion. It’s a wonderfully human movie.