Ostensibly a ‘black comedy’, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is a poignant, sharp film that delves into male friendships, pride and the tribulations of island life.
When describing the ‘comedy’ aspect of Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, it’s probably fair to describe it as being as dark as the black stuff his protagonists knock back in pints at the pub every day at 2pm. (‘Guinness’, if you’re unaware.) But at its heart, it’s a much more poignant tale than some might have you believe; a rumination on small town friendships and depression, with a little bit of self-mutilation thrown in for good measure.
The film is set off the coast of Ireland during the Civil War in 1926, but a much more personal conflict is taking place on the small, fictional island of Inisherin. Padraic (Colin Farrelll) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are the best of friends, at least according to Padraic. But one day, when Colm fails to join him for their usual drink, Padraic is floored to be told that Colm doesn’t want to be his friend anymore. It completely knocks the usually jovial Padraic for six, and he turns to his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) and local oddball Dominic (Barry Keoghan) for advice. But his repeated attempts at reconciliation don’t work out too well, and so Colm is forced to offer a shocking ultimatum to get a little bit of peace and quiet.
The Banshees of Inisherin is, at its simplest, an odd-couple break-up movie. But as it delves deeper into the abrupt ending of a friendship, it can actually be seen as a study of masculine pride. When Padraic regales Dominic of Colm’s reasoning, ‘I just don’t like you no more’, Keoghan delivers one of the film’s funniest lines: ‘what is he, 12?’, and it pretty much sums up the general feeling over this twosome’s split. In the playground, it was easy to just tell someone you didn’t want to be their friend anymore and go your separate ways. But as adults, it’s a bit more trickier. It’s an emotional upheaval, to have something you’ve invested heavily in be torn away, and so Padraic’s confusion and hurt are understandable. He thinks of himself as a happy-go-lucky chap, someone who’s nice and will be remembered as such. Colm, meanwhile, has gone all existential and wants more out of life, wants to make music and be at peace – which generally means being far away from Padraic’s not-so-great chats.
And it’s here that McDonagh’s film deepens thematically. Men, particularly rural working men of Padraic and Colm’s ilk, are often seen as being ill-equipped to deal with emotional situations like this. It’s unlikely they’ve ever truly thought about their relationships with each other, delved into their loneliness, pain and sadness. Instead it’s banal chats about donkey shit and local gossip that fill their days. And Banshees takes its time exploring how suddenly being forced to confront these feelings can be a struggle, how one might recoil at a shift in routine or overreact in the quest of getting what you want. It’s a battle of prides, but also a battle to combat the banality of depression, to get out of the rut of ‘just getting on with it’ and trying to make positive changes. Colm wants to write great music, enjoy his seaside home and spend time with his dog; but the relatively content Padraic can’t understand why that means they can’t be friends anymore.
And it’s not only Colm who’s trying something new. Condon’s Siobhan chafes at the close knit community and small-town gossip of island life and is desperate for some adventure, but stays because she’s one of the three people Padraic relies on. And there’s Dominic, in a fantastic performance from Keoghan, who’s a little bit strange and a little uncouth, but good at heart and desperately in love with Siobhan. It’s a relatively small cast, and they’re all given moments to shine, but this is Gleeson and, perhaps more emphatically, Farrell’s show to steal.
Gleeson has the air of a man put-upon too many times, who craves the simple life and lacks the patience and the desire to be gentle in his searching for it. He’s abrupt with Padraic, tells him in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t like him anymore, and carries on with his life, seemingly untroubled by the loss of their friendship. But, as Padraic, it’s Farrell’s emotional journey that’s most impressive here. A simple man with simple wants, Padraic is well-meaning but bull-headed, a bit dim but caring of those he cares about. Colm seems to thrive after their ‘split’ while Padraic struggles, and Farrell’s ability to convey Padraic’s confusion, hurt and anger is quite something. His physicality changes as Padraic’s feelings get more and more crushed: his shoulders slump, his eyebrows tilt even more inward and the jovial spark in his eyes dulls completely. It’s perhaps the best Farrell’s been on screen in a while.
At the helm, McDonagh keeps the reins on Banshees so that it never loses focus. His script is as sharp and witty as one would expect, and the rugged, baren beauty of the Emerald Isle is on fine display from cinematographer Ben Davis. It’s a film that delivers on the comedy, but also has a much more poignant message at its core, a common theme within McDonagh’s work. The Banshees of Inisherin is a black comedy with a not-so-black heart, a moving fable about the prides of men, the gap a friendship can leave in our lives and the rocky road to getting a little peace and quiet once in a while.
The Banshees of Inisherin premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival on September 5, 2022, and will be released globally in theaters on October 21.