Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendon Gleeson
At one point in The Banshees of Inisherin, Colm (Brendon Gleeson) tells his ex-friend Padraic (Colin Farrell) that if Padraic speaks even a word to him then Colm will cut off a finger. If Padraic approaches him again after that, Colm will cut off another finger. It sounds like an overreaction and it is, but if you’re familiar with Martin McDonagh’s work, then you know that Colm is not making an empty threat. McDonagh loves using splashes of gory, physical violence in his stories. There’s a shock value to these moments, but they’re also reminders that the bleeding wounds are superficial. The real violence is emotional and psychological. Next to that, the visible, physical excess is (somewhat literally) a joke.
Set in the 1920s, on a fictional island off the coast of Ireland, The Banshees of Inisherin is ostensibly the story of Colm and Padraic, who have been friends for decades. They spend all their time together and have set routines — at 2 in the afternoon, Padraic knocks on Colm’s door and they go down to have a pint at the local pub. The walk to Colm’s gives Padraic a view of the mainland and every now and then, he’ll hear the low rumble of an explosion and see black smoke rise in the distance. One day, without warning or explanation, Colm decides he doesn’t want to be around Padraic any more. He wants to compose music, do things that feel meaningful to him, and not waste time with his nice but dull (ex) friend. Padraic is having none of this. He is determined to get his friend back but Colm is just as determined to have none of Padraic. As the two men go about their lives — with Padraic trying to fix their friendship and Colm steadfastly avoiding Padraic — we get a portrait of life in Inisherin. There’s a pub where people gather and sing; a store owner who is hungry for news; a village idiot who is also a truth teller; and a crone who watches over it all. The idyllic simplicity of Inisherin is almost clichéd and as the story of Colm and Padraic’s friendship unfolds, it becomes clear that darkness lurks under cheerful veneer of village life. Powered by masterful performances by Farrell and Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking films of this year.
On the face of it, McDonagh’s story is about Irishness and Ireland; of the violence and sadness that can’t be avoided, no matter how diligently you turn your back to the unrest and politics in society. However, the beauty of McDonagh’s writing is that this simple, absurd story also taps into universal anxieties. It feels particularly poignant in the post-lockdown era, when people have grappled with loneliness and felt the frustration of life slipping by, of squandering time and potential because of the bubbles in which they’re trapped. Inisherin, cut off from reality and seemingly not impacted by the troubles of the mainland, feels almost like an ideal world at first. It has an uncomplicated way of life, rooted in habit and surrounded by beauty. Everyone’s nice and Padraic is the nicest of them all, as we’re repeatedly told. Innocence, most poignantly embodied in Padraic’s miniature donkey Jenny, survives here. (One hilarious and heartbreaking tidbit about the shooting of The Banshees of Inisherin is that according to Farrell, Jenny the miniature donkey had her own support animal — another miniature donkey. When you watch the film, you’ll see why Jenny needs that emotional backup.)
The turbulence of the mainland doesn’t reach Inisherin and everyone on the island can cocoon themselves in comforting delusions. There’s no news because no one confronts reality and no one wants bad news. Everyone peddles illusions about themselves and their lives. The carefully-uneventful idyll feels particularly relatable as a parallel to our present times, with our curated feeds, virtual communities and performative spaces. We’re all living in echo chambers — though few offer views as scenic as the Irish landscapes in this film — and denial is what makes the world go round.
Eventually, reality and discontent snake their way into Inisherin and McDonagh plots its downfall using subtlety and stealth. Everything seems the same, yet Inisherin changes forever when Colm decides he wants more than niceness in his life. Padraic pushes Colm’s buttons and Colm reacts viciously. Fogs obscure the roads that were once sun-lit. The bright green gives way to twilight blue. The pub where people once gathered happily to sing sad songs ends up being a place where you can hear jaunty tunes played by nervous young men sitting at tables that are dirty with blood spatter. The only sliver of hope lies in the story of Padraic’s sister, who proves to be more courageous than anyone else on the island. Yet by the end of the film, she’s also unwittingly ended up in a bubble of sorts. Neither she nor Padraic seem to be telling each other the truth, mostly out of love for one another. Meanwhile, outside a burnt house, with a view of the glittering sea, sits the one person who can comfortably slip between the realities and illusions of Inisherin — the crone.