‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ Review: From Friends to Enemies
Colin Farrell stars in Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy, which tells the quietly sagacious story of a simple man on an Irish island whose best friend suddenly spurns him.
Brendan Gleeson and Colin FarrellPHOTO: SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
By Kyle Smith
Oct. 20, 2022 5:59 pm ETSAVEPRINTTEXT
Wounded but funny, quiet but resonant and resistant to anything like a Hollywood formula, “The Banshees of Inisherin” is a strangely profound little comedy. It’s one of the few true originals among movies this year.
The film begins in 1923 in a forbiddingly remote place off a far corner of Europe: the Aran Islands near the west coast of Ireland. The guns of the Irish Civil War can be heard in the distance, creating puzzlement among the residents of Inisherin. “Good luck to ye, whatever it is you’re fighting about,” says Pádraic, a simple dairy man played by Colin Farrell in an infinitely sensitive portrayal of a hopeless dullard. A kind of micro-spoof of the war is about to upend his peaceful little life. Pádraic’s best friend, Colm (played with a balance of lightness and foreboding by the gifted character actor Brendan Gleeson), has decided to spurn him, irrevocably and without warning. “I just don’t like you no more,” Colm says, and demands that Pádraic never speak to him again.
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Colm is prepared to go to extremes to prove a point, and things seem bound to take a turn from the placid to the macabre, especially to those acquainted with the gory imagination of the author of this film. Writer-director Martin McDonagh generates a lot of laughter, but like the earliest editions of Henry Ford’s Model T, his comedy comes in only one color: black.
Based on such dark dazzlers as “The Pillowman” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” Mr. McDonagh strikes me as by far the greatest playwright of his generation even as each of his first three films has left me slightly disappointed. “Banshees,” however, which was made under certain Covid-related constraints, is much more like a play than his previous movies—tightly disciplined, impeccably plotted and overflowing with suspense. Like many of his plays, but none of his previous movies, it’s set in Ireland’s past. Even the film’s title suggests such McDonagh plays as “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” (Inishmore and Inishmaan are actual Aran Islands; Inisherin is a fictional one.)
Colin FarrellPHOTO: SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
“Banshees” is in part a conversation about not talking, and the discussion of why there is nothing to be said flutters and wriggles and dances in delightful ways. The chatter between the two leads, and the others to whom they explain their rift, is as intricate as an extended comedy routine. As is usual in Mr. McDonagh’s work, supporting players also get a chance to shine by playing memorably weird roles, notably Barry Keoghan, who is twitchy yet touching as Pádraic’s friend the village idiot. Kerry Condon, who makes for a no-nonsense contrast to Pádraic, is also superb as his sister, the one sensible person around.
Unlike “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”—easily Mr. McDonagh’s worst film, and hence unsurprisingly the one that captured Academy Awards—“Banshees” makes its social points finely and by implication rather than signposting them like outdoor advertising. It’s a meditation on free-floating sadness and wounds that won’t heal, and though it’s very Irish it’s also universal. In a witheringly ironic remark alluding to Ireland’s seemingly endless capacity for grudges, toward the end of the film someone reflects on the internecine conflict on the mainland and says, “I think they’re coming to the end of it, don’t you?” Today it’s 99 years later, and it appears that the answer was no.
Kerry CondonPHOTO: SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
The British-born Mr. McDonagh sees Ireland (where his parents are from) as a place of slow-boiling, never-ending, difficult-to-explain hostility. And yet, with a little squint, it isn’t hard to recognize other cultures in these characters, maybe even our own ailing and failings. Often we speak of polarization and how it could trigger civil strife. Pádraic and Colm show us how dissatisfaction becomes mistrust, which grows into dislike, then fury.
In a quietly startling scene set in a confessional booth, we learn that the real problem lies deep: Colm’s confessor asks, “How’s the despair?” There’s been a lot of that going around. In the 2020s, maybe more than usual, some toxic inner tension leads to blaming others. By the end of “Banshees,” when things are scarcely recognizable compared to the start, everyone in the town where it’s set will be asking a question many in the West have been asking for years, whether they’re referring to Brexit or rekindled populism or the startling hostility of social media: How did we get here? “Banshees” is something of a funhouse mirror, but we can easily recognize ourselves in its twisted images. It’s the best film I’ve seen so far this year.