Sometimes friendships fade. For whatever reason, people can lose that energy that brought them together in the beginning. The Banshees of Inisherin is an exploration of two friends breaking up and the ramifications that occur when one does not take the hint. Being drawn out to the point of potential self-bodily harm, one may not go in with that description alone, thinking it’s a comedy. And yet, that’s what writer/director Martin McDonagh has delivered, a terrific black comedy featuring stellar performances all around.
Set in 1923 on the island of Inisherin, Colin Farrell stars as Pádraic Súilleabháin. The film opens with beautiful shots of the landscapes found on the Aran Islands. Pádraic seems cheerful as can be, with a literal rainbow right over his should as he walks to his best friend Colm Doherty’s house. Brendan Gleeson portrays Colm, a folk musician and well-respected elder statesman of the town. Upon Pádraic’s arrival, Colm pays him no attention. Later, at the pub, Colm explains that he no longer wishes to be friends or speak to his drinking buddy. Perplexed, Pádraic spends the rest of the film testing these newly created boundaries, pushing Colm to take drastic actions of his own.
Farrell, Gleeson, and McDonagh previously collaborated on the similarly darkly-tinged hitman comedy In Bruges. The chemistry between the two actors was among the highlights of that film, and the announcement of The Banshees of Inisherin had me ready for more of these guys on screen together. The film does not disappoint, as there are so many wonderful exchanges between the two, let alone physical performances that suggest a variety of shifts in their dynamic. Starting at a point where this friendship has dissolved in the eyes of Colm, it’s astounding to have a film so effectively work at filling in the backstory without needing to overexplain it or resort to flashbacks. Instead, the movie relies on the actors to convey plenty in how they speak to each other.
Having started as a playwright, The Banshees of Inisherin feels the most like one of McDonagh’s plays come to life. The Oscar winner certainly crammed plenty of dialogue into Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and even examined the writing process in the crime comedy Seven Psychopaths. Still, while I could easily see this war between friends playing out on the stage, McDonagh has shown plenty of skill as a filmmaker who knows how to expand on what’s coming from these characters and a few others, from dialogue exchanges to wonderful visual motifs, recurring imagery, and more.
Shot by Ben Davis, edited by Oscar winner Mikkel E. G. Nielsen, and featuring a lovely score by Carter Burwell, The Banshees of Inisherin is a wonderfully cinematic feature as much as it is a compelling character study. Watching Pádraic and Colm take long walks around the island to get to their respective homes or into town adds to our understanding of their internal struggles. The sense of isolation further helps justify why Colm feels a need to fill the remaining years of his life with worthwhile things, while Pádraic only has so much going for him.
Keeping the look of this setting in mind, there are some interesting reasonings I’ve come up with as far as setting the film specifically during the 1920s (as the Irish Civil War rages on in the background). The fact that it cuts off outside elements and devices is one part of it. Removing certain additional complexities allows for a greater sense of purity as the film delves into these characters. Having animals come into play as well (Colm has a dog, Pádraic has a miniature donkey) further brings an interesting dimension to the regard these two have for a form of companionship and how it affects them.
The acting on display is terrific, by the way. Farrell embodies a needy character incredibly well, finding ways to shrink his body and face in a manner that effectively portrays his distress and rejection. Gleeson has perhaps never been better in establishing a state of mind and wanting to hold on to a specific principle. And yet, the film also allows him to be amenable to someone who feels so wounded. The shades we see in these two as the film goes on allow for a level of empathy to take hold, which is especially interesting considering how the film shifts around in its perspective.
Additionally, two supporting performances do plenty to amplify the film’s cast. Kerry Condon plays Siobhán Súilleabháin, Pádraic’s sister, and the way she wants to serve as some sort of mediator while also being fed up with these men acting like dolts is excellent. This is another example of a character who clearly has a history that can be gleaned from her interactions with those around the island.
The other supporting player is Barry Keoghan as Dominic Kearney. Dominic is the kind of guy who is sincere yet has no filter, making others wary around him. He’s also one with abuse problems at home, making Pádraic feel sorry for him. Their relationship, let alone how Dominic interacts with Siobhán, brings in a different take on how bonds exist. It serves as a mild reflection of where the two warring friends may or could have been at some point.
I found all of this to be fascinating. The way the stakes were raised only ensured just how dark things could get if these characters couldn’t manage to resist holding back how they felt. Fortunately, McDonagh is not one to cop out with establishing specific parameters and doing what works for the film, regardless of if it’s something the audience thinks they want to see. Helping all of this is the humor. As dark as things get, the writing and delivery continually find ways to turn the movie toward absurdity. It doesn’t undercut the drama unfolding, but finding ways to be often very funny is a significant victory.
The Banshees of Inisherin has all the hallmarks of a small feature bound to succeed based on acclaim. Fortunately, it is well-earned. The balance of humor and drama (as well as some startling violence) makes this likely the most compelling film I’ve seen set on one of the islands in Galway Bay. Farrell and Gleeson are fantastic here and deserve every accolade bestowed on them. The supporting cast rounds things out nicely as well, as the way we get to understand this community only adds to accepting a film so focused on male loneliness and more. There’s nothing fun about being heartbroken, but in this well-penned Irish-themed feature, it can be pretty funny.