“When push comes to shove, we will always return to good chats,” Colin Farrell said at a press conference before the premiere of The Banshees of Inisherin. He’s not wrong. All things must pass. But the irony is, that’s the question in Banshees: what if something didn’t?
Martin McDonagh’s fourth film marks an In Bruges reunion between the writer-director, Farrell, and Brendan Gleeson. It again finds the two leads as another mismatched, in-a-rut couple of men serving up heaping portions of existential despair and black comedy. But this rut is of a very different ilk—much smaller in scope, lacking villainy, almost cute… until it isn’t.
Banshees is McDonagh’s A Straight Story, but he doesn’t go full monty. He works in a few comically violent McDonagh beats that rip us out of the ordinary. But it’s the permeating sense of normality, routine, and unremarkableness that gives them their punch. To note the simplicity, he opens on a white screen with a glowing white font. (Why does that feel like a theater-director move?)
It passes in a flash, as if to be forgotten, and find ourselves on a stroll with Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell) through a pastoral, cottage-lined village atop the cliffs of an isle off the west coast of Ireland, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. (It’s also the town where McDonagh’s father grew up and he often visited as a child.) A nice, quaint fellow, Pádraic smiles earnestly as the sun cracks open perpetually gray skies around him to reveal the faintest of rainbows.
He swings by to grab Colm Doherty (Gleeson) for a two o’clock pint, like he always does, and we witness the first of Pádraic’s many failed attempts to win Colm’s attention. They usually drink in a cave of a townlet pub where sparse light pierces the room with a stunning silvery gray glow, per Ben Davis’ veteran cinematography. After Pádraic convenes with the regular bartender—who wonders if they’re “rowin’”—he returns for a second try. Colm, still sitting there doing nothing, answers this time. He doesn’t beat around the bush: “I just don’t like you anymore.”
It’s everyone’s worst fear about the people they love: total abandonment (and worse, bathed in apathy). To twist the knife further, it’s Pádraic’s fault. And to break the blade off inside, it’s not anything he’s done—just the way he is, something he can’t change.“What? Is he 12?!” says Siobhan (Kerry Condon), Pádraic’s sister. She’s right: it’s juvenile. But in a way it’s also very understandable. Who hasn’t felt cornered at a party? Imagine waking up in that situation every day, buried alive. That’s damnation.
“You’re just dull,” Colm says flatly. He is, the whole town agrees, much more intelligent than Pádraic, or at least less easily sufficed. Pádraic didn’t realize until now that many considered them a funny match. Colm is casually philosophical and writes music on the fiddle that he plays around town. He thinks long and hard and carries conviction. We get the idea that his most interesting ideas have been lost on Pádraic, a jetstream of critical thought over his head throughout their friendship.
Pádraic, on the other hand, never has anything better to do than hang around, and he’s not thinking much while he’s doing it. He wears sweaters that go to eleven. But then again, everyone does. He has a touch too much hope, and it makes for some brutal tough love moments. His “dimness” – as Siobhan and Colm discuss in a riotous bout of verbal slapstick – is played in sharp contrast to the wit of Siobhan, who tries desperately to steer him in the right direction.
Pádraic doesn’t know who Mozart is. He’d prefer to have the smelly donkey in the house, despite the small size of the quarters and stern rejection of his sister. At night he gazes at the bombs going off on the mainland and wishes well to the Free State and IRA alike, as if the war were a sad fairytale he might wish away with good intentions. In one sense he has a beautiful childlike optimism. In another, well… he’s childlike. So it doesn’t matter how much Colm asks him to leave. He refuses to accept his unwantedness, making terrible decision after terrible decision to mend the distaste while everyone begs him to stop beneath the cringing.
“Why can’t you leave me alone?” Colm pleads. Realizing he needs to up the stakes, he gives Pádraic a Joker-tier ultimatum: if you come calling again, I’ll cut off one of my fingers. And I’ll cut off another if you come calling a second time, a third time, a fourth, until they’re all gone. Maybe then Pádraic will get the picture. “What about being nice,” Pádraic pleads. But Colm doesn’t care about niceness in the face of a miserable existence. He’s just trying to survive. “Who will remember niceness?!” he shouts at a dumbfounded, but still not defeated, Pádraic.
What unfolds is prototypical McDonagh in nature but toned down in execution, milder than where your mind might take you with the ultimatum. As a film full of characters it’s another triumph for McDonagh, who continues to build on a career of writing fascinating, strange, and relatable people, from the nameless townies chirping at the pub to gossipmonger Ms. O’Riordan, who runs the general store when she’s not harassing customers for tidbits.
Dominic Kearney (a fantastic Barry Keoghan) is another, a rebel-rousing fool who’s despicable yet hard to blame given his situation at home. Keoghan comes onto the scene here much like he does in The Green Knight, appearing out of nowhere, walking next to the lead, and talking a million words a minute with a distinctive affectation, almost tripping over himself as a reflection of his severe lack of self-awareness. His dad is the cop of the town: a vile, physically and sexually abusive father who threatens fines and jail time at those not willing to buy him a beer, and the last person who should be issuing justice.
Without his trademark vulgarity and narrative absurdity, McDonagh’s challenged himself to draw humor and meaning from the mundane. And he does. He finds comedy in the near-miniature scope of the isle and the tsunamis of emotion dredged up by the smallest, most insignificant changes in day-to-day routine. He finds meaning in the stripped-down essence of male friendship. He leaves us with more challenges in the wake of the conclusion. And most of all he finds his footing in the stakes of this story, which carry just as much weight despite, on paper, paling in comparison to the stakes in his other films, where lives, not merely fingers, are at risk.
The Banshees of Inisherin premiered at the Venice Film Festival and will open on October 21.