The films of Martin McDonagh are full of lonely, isolated people and The Banshees of Inisherin is no exception. Like In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri before it, this is the story of missed or missing connections. This time, though, it’s particularly bleak. Billed as a comedy, The Banshees of Inisherin isn’t full of laughs, and they tend to come early on. Things get darker as the film goes on.
It reinstates the In Bruges coupling of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, here as longtime friends who live on an island off the coast of Ireland in 1923. While the civil war has been raging away just over there somewhere, Colm (Gleeson) and Pádraic (Farrell) have been spending a lot of time in each other’s company, mostly at the pub, mostly talking shite.
Until one day Colm announces he doesn’t want to be Pádraic’s friend any more, that life is short and there are more important things to be doing than drinking Guinness and wasting his time with a man, he implies, who is dull. When Pádraic pushes back, Colm issues him with an ultimatum: leave me alone or I’ll cut off a finger. And every time you insist on talking to me I’ll cut off another one.
This aggressive self-mutilation looks like game theory’s “madman strategy” – Colm dominates the game by demonstrating that he’s prepared to blow himself up. It’s a veiled metaphor for the ruptures caused to long-standing relationships by populist politics, if you like, but McDonagh doesn’t push it, instead letting the scenario play out as if an episode of the Ireland-set TV show Father Ted had been scripted by Samuel Beckett at his most absurd.
As in Beckett, bleak comedy, ridiculousness and repetition abound, and McDonagh is also playing about with Irish stereotypes, which come ready-wrapped, of course. This has caused disquiet in some quarters but the Irish seem big enough to be able to take it, have realised that McDonagh is telling an elaborately amplified story, and they’re also for the most part wise enough to realise it’s a case of taking the rough with the smooth – for every negative stereotype (thick Irishmen), there’s a positive (the land of song, of saints and scholars, etc). Surely there is a reason that the grass in this movie comes in 40 shades of enhanced green.
If you’ve seen In Bruges – hitmen do Waiting for Godot – you’ll already know that Gleeson and Farrell work well together. Here, Gleeson is a brilliantly grumpy man who has a love of music and an interest in the wider world. Farrell is not just painfully needy but “a limited man”, as Colm describes him, who will spend “two hours talking about what you found in your donkey’s shite.” Around them wheel a constellation of similarly strong performances – Barry Keoghan as the island’s village idiot, Kerry Condon as Pádraic’s unmarried sister, Gary Lydon as the vicious local policeman, Sheila Flitton as the wraith-like Mrs McCormick, a harbinger of doom, Bríd Ní Neachtain as the busybody postmistress. All lonely, though none quite so desperately, existentially, as Colm, who suddenly realises the Reaper is sharpening the scythe and who dances with his dog when no one is watching, because there’s no human about.
Initially titled Inishmore, The Banshees of Inisherin was originally intended to be the third in McDonagh’s Aran Island Trilogy of stage plays (along with The Cripple of Inishman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore). You’d never guess. This is a beautifully cinematic visually lush film, full of dark smoky bars, windswept beaches and picturesque landscape criss-crossed by rocky roads, and McDonagh keeps the action pinging from place to place – the church, the post office, the cottage Pádraic and sister Siobhán share with a dwarf donkey – returning now and again to Colm’s, where a big pair of shears lie on the floor ready for the next amputation.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023