Martin McDonagh’s latest film, crafted from his black and dark sense of humor, is the anti-boyfriend comedy. Banshees of Inisherin is a “meeting place” film where – rather than focusing on the experiential deepening of a friendship – one person’s sudden, dramatic and seemingly sporadic breakup is harnessed for all the painfully awkward and uncomfortably honest conversation that the McDonagh’s screenplay can extract from the idea.
Reuniting with the comedy duo of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrel – whose mentor-student dynamic as disgraced hidden assassins produced staggering, screen-commanding chemistry and endless banter in McDonagh’s debut In Brugge (2006) — Banshees trades the crude and acerbic witticisms of hardened mercenaries forced to kill time in the storybook atmosphere of Belgium for the pastoral quietude of isolated maritime Ireland, where, at the end of a civil war, two lifelong friends suddenly part ways. Comparatively, the stakes may seem less imperative in the dramatic setting of a small town, but McDonagh’s latest can make the smallest squabbles between companions feel like plays of biblical morality.
Banshees is set in the humble village of Inisherin off the west coast of Ireland, where your daily schedule of chores in 1923 still ended up in the only pub with your handful of neighbours. The sanctity of this hushed existence, untouched by the civil war raging on its last legs across the lake, is disturbed by the sudden breakdown of a friendship between two stalwarts of this humble community. What initially brought Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) and the quietly intelligent musician Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) to the self-proclaimed jovial stupid and kind is never quite explicit, but what is quite clear is that their union had an expiration date.
Accelerated by a recent revelation from Colm regarding his mortality and the mundane meaninglessness of their existence in Inisherin, he quickly breaks their friendship, leaving Pádraic shocked and simmering in nagging confusion. Determined to find out what has changed between them, Pádraic becomes obsessed with his estranged pal, leading to more dramatic disruptions for this once-peaceful colony patiently awaiting an end to the war.
McDonagh’s screenplay emphasizes the suddenness of friendships ending and the upheaval of the status quo in transitional times, mischievously letting this silent bomb fester inside Pádraic de Farrell’s mind, slowly turning him into a shadow of his former me awesome. Farrell’s character’s descent into desperation and cruelty is fascinating to watch against the stony Gleeson, Farrell playing off his inscrutable hostility with cock-eyed optimism.
The wonderfully awkward chemistry between the two is as prickly and hilarious as the last time the duo teamed up, and McDonagh allows the breakdown of the characters’ friendship to play out through a slow series of agonizing social missteps in a confined environment. Banshees can sometimes be a sour, squeaky comedy about the social awkwardness of avoiding a once close friend in the intimate proximity of a small village, and at others a ruinous exploration of your typical “nice guy breaking point” when his limited world looks like it’s conspiring against him. In both of these modes, McDonagh is poignantly reserved with his direction, leaving every pregnant pause in the conversation between Pádraic and Colm hanging with an uncomfortable tension.
Again featuring cinematographer Ben Davis and shot in and around Inishmore, the film beautifully captures the quiet gloom of the Irish coast, making it one of the most breathtaking films McDonagh has ever made. Accentuating the turbulence between its two main characters with the rolling, rocky hills and sweeping vistas of its setting, Davis gives the fictional Inisherin a palpable, lived-in quality. McDonagh’s theatrical theatrical approach to his compositions is well used for what could very well be performed on a stage, without too much loss in translation, but Banshees makes its pastoral setting feel like an integral part of the drama, like a character unto itself.
Much like the quaint, touristy charms of Bruges ironically reflecting the dark, cynical outlook of hardened killers, McDonagh brilliantly casts the idyllic agrarian charm of the Irish coast to underscore the tumultuous social life bubbling beneath its surface. The move leads to incredibly effective tension for such a scaled-down premise.
Accompanying Gleeson and Farrell’s captivating tete-a-tete, the welcome presences of Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan round out the personality of the miner’s village population. As Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán, Condon steals the show as the angry but tender voice of reason in Colm and Pádraic’s petty feud, providing some of the film’s most cutting and amusing lines on the situation. Dominic de Keoghan, the vulgar public nuisance who acts as Pádraic’s confidant (and whom Pádraic uses to feel better about himself), plays perfectly on the actor’s venerable ability to cause discomfort with his performance in starting out as silly comic relief until, much like most characters’ dialogue, it becomes caustically honest. Overall, the cast effortlessly handles McDonagh’s dark comedy-drama, knowing how to balance irreverent banter with heavy tonal shifts.
After the retrospectively controversial treatment of racial themes in Three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017), McDonagh has effectively returned to his roots in terms of setting and subject matter, probing the spines of human companionship without the additional misplaced ambitions of commenting on how bigotry manifests itself in positions of authority in states. from the center-south.
Banshees of Inisherin is simply about the dissolution of a friendship and how the repercussions of that breakup can upend a town when it’s small enough that it becomes everyone’s problem. Melancholic and hysterical in equal measure, the way the film manages this balance so well, given how well it can switch between these two modes, speaks to the film’s distinctive quality.