Two Irish friends come to a crisis point in their relationship.
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson
Review by Jon Kissel
Farrell’s and Gleeson’s characters in Banshees are about as far from skilled professional killers as possible. Set in 1923, as the Irish Civil War can be seen raging on the mainland, Farrell’s Padraic and Gleeson’s Colm are old friends in a small community. Padraic, a farmer, lives with his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) and imagines his life being exactly the same for however long it continues. Colm, a folk musician and violinist, is more restless than Padraic, and given to thoughts of his meager legacy if all he ever does is pluck out a few chords at the local pub and get updates on the state of Padraic’s donkey. To that end, Colm tells Padraic that he’s had enough of him, that time spent with Padraic is time not furthering his interests or his intellect, and that if Padraic keeps speaking to him, he’ll cut off his fingers one by one. Incredulous and offended to his core, Padraic pushes his luck with Colm until a severed digit shows up on his doorstep.
The distant explosions and gunfire of the civil war are greeted with indifference by the inhabitants of Inisherin, but this is only the latest disruption. Compulsory conscription and fighting in World War I turned into Irish independence, which led to war with Britain, culminating in the civil war that now barely raises an eyebrow after years of dramatic change. Colm’s confronting of his own mortality is a justifiable and understandable reaction to all this, but so is Padraic’s insistence on being decent and normal. The film doesn’t say what either character has been up to in this last decade, but how could this period not get a person thinking about how they’ll be remembered, especially if they have a more artistic temperament, as Colm does. Conversely, Padraic’s self-image is that of a man people would be glad to know, reward enough for the unambitious. In a time of so much distrust between nations and between neighbors, there is real value in putting friendliness into the world.
The Irish cultural penchant for amiable despair carries both characters through the film. Colm is all but diagnosed with depression, as this latest reordering of his life is likely an attempt to pull himself out of a black rut. His music does seem to make him happy, and focusing more on that and less on pints with Padraic could conceivably up his quotient of daily joy, provided he hangs onto his violin fingers. Padraic starts the film in a happier state, but events take him in Colm’s direction. He’s experiencing a middle-aged horror show, where he’s being forced to reevaluate how he sees himself and his place in the community. Palling around with Colm was respectable, but after his ultimatum, Padraic is left with no drinking buddy but the local idiot Dominic (Barry Keoghan), a young man who will never think of Padraic as dull. By the end of the film, an exasperated Siobhan will have moved away, Dominic will have drowned, and Padraic’s beloved scene-stealing donkey will have choked to death on one of Colm’s fingers. McDonagh puts Padraic through a Job-like trial, leaving him with little of the amiability and plenty of the despair.
McDonagh’s earlier three films have all had their reasonable strengths, and Banshees represents his ability to pull the best pieces from them. The rapport between Farrell and Gleeson, first personified in In Bruges, is a lovely thing to behold. Farrell’s decompensation mirrors his arc in Seven Psychopaths, but without the arch quality that made that film his most forgettable. From Three Billboards, McDonagh pulls his interest in abusive cops, though here, the cop in question is far from the redemptive character. Banshees’ martinet figure is Peadar (Gary Lydon), Dominic’s cruel father who lashes out at Padraic when he sticks up for Dominic. The punch that Peadar gives to Padraic is not a comedic pratfall, but as true a demonstration of violence that McDonagh has ever included in his films, such that it’s debilitating and nasty and humiliating. It also leads to a thread of gentleness that McDonagh is always able to find room for in his films, especially in Banshees. He’s capable of a lot of cruelty, but he consistently leavens it with grace.
Farrell’s reaction to the aforementioned punch is one of many moments in Banshees where he once again proves his considerable talent. He completely embodies this character, dialing in his IQ to the exact right number. Watching his gears turn in response to this or that barb from Colm or Siobhan is hilarious and in direct contrast to his ability to break the viewer’s heart. Padraic’s woundedness is given full flower by Farrell, prompting deep wells of sympathy for one of the most beautiful men on the planet. Gleeson is unsurprisingly great as Colm. His depression puts him in a low-energy state, but there’s few actors who are as watchable even when they’re doing nothing but sitting and staring by the fire. Condon’s complete lack of patience with the idiots in her life is great fun. It’s a potential pitfall for the film to write her as the smartest person in town, but not when she makes it seem so obviously true. The way she handles Dominic’s proposal gives her something different to play, navigating this poor kid’s heart as firmly and gently as she can. Speaking of Dominic, Keoghan has been on my radar for years and it’s a thrill for more and more viewers to discover him with each new role. Reuniting with Farrell after the stunning Killing of a Sacred Deer, Keoghan gives a busy performance as the film’s saddest creature. Bobbing and weaving with nervous energy, his Dominic is the most optimistic person on the island in spite of his difficult life, and therefore is also capable of the most disappointment.
The Banshees of Inisherin is specific in its Irish-ness and universal in its commentary on aging. A great personal fear is exactly what Padraic goes through here, where I’ll wake up one day and realize I’m boring, or that I’ll have run out of things to say, or that my interests have stayed the same while friends have found new incompatible ones. There’s great comfort in finding satisfaction with one’s life, but when does satisfaction become complacency, if that’s even a bad thing itself? A place as old and troubled as Ireland is the perfect setting for these kinds of questions, and McDonagh reveals himself to be the perfect vessel for them. A