Movies

Martin McDonagh’s Follow-up to Three Billboards Is His Best Movie Yet

This very Irish dark comedy, reuniting In Bruges’ Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, is one ye shouldn’t miss.

Gleeson crouches glumly at a cozy country bar, while Farrell, behind him, seems to be bidding for his attention
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in The Banshees of Inisherin. Searchlight Pictures

“I just don’t like you no more.” This blunt and mysteriously motiveless declaration, made by Colm (Brendan Gleeson) to his longtime best friend Pádraic (Colin Farrell), as the latter comes to fetch the former for their daily trip to the village pub, begins a cycle of apologies, rejections, recriminations, and outlandish gestures of revenge that will change both men’s lives and those of the other residents of Inisherin, the fictional island off the coast of Ireland where they live.

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The year is 1923, although given how remote and rustic Inisherin is—the settlement appears to consist of little more than a seaside market, a pub, a church, and a few scattered houses surrounded by sheep—there are few markers to place us in any historical time. Across the water on the Irish mainland, a civil war is raging, but it reaches the inhabitants of the island mainly in the form of the occasional puff of smoke from a distant explosion. The hostilities between Colm and Pádraic are of a more personal but no less deadly nature. As imagined by writer-director Martin McDonagh (In BrugesThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Inisherin is a lonely and primordially violent place, where the local cop (Gary Lydon) brutally beats his developmentally delayed son (Barry Keoghan), and Pádraic’s bookish sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) has no one to talk to about anything more elevated than the contents of her brother’s pet pony’s manure.

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Before becoming a filmmaker, McDonagh, the London-born son of two Irish parents, was an acclaimed playwright, and the first thing the viewer notices about The Banshees of Inisherin is the economical but precise dialogue. Repetition and rhythm are used to richly comic effect: “Have ye been rowin’?” Siobhan asks her brother when she hears of the old friends’ split, and in the scenes that follow the question gets repeated in identical form by the local bartender, his barfly friend, and the puzzled Pádraic himself (“Have we been rowin’?”), in the style of a choral motet. McDonagh’s attention to the patterns of regional speech, and the cast’s evident pleasure in delivering his finely tooled language, had the audience at my screening laughing out loud multiple times per scene—at least for the first half hour or so. But as the conflict between the two men spirals into a more destructive place, the tone shifts from folksy humor to existential black comedy. Colm, an accomplished fiddler who lives alone with his dog, is a darker and more complicated sort than the placid, sweet-natured but hopelessly dull Pádraic. Colm’s decision to withdraw from the friendship appears to have more to do with wrestling with his own mortality than with anything his friend has done. As he explains patiently but unbendingly to anyone who asks, he simply wants to be left in peace to play his fiddle for however many years he has left.

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In an authorial gesture similar to Colm’s refusal to give Pádraic a reason for his rejection, McDonagh refuses to come down on one side or another of the friends’ quarrel. At first, like Pádraic, we are confused and hurt by the older man’s intransigence, but as the heartbroken Pádraic continues to pursue him, trying every tactic from reasoned persuasion to scabrous insult, we start to admire Colm’s respect for his own boundaries. When his rage at his friend’s incessant pestering takes a violently self-destructive turn—for every time Pádraic addresses him in the future, he vows, he will take a pair of shears and chop off one of his own fingers—the film veers toward horror without losing either its philosophical gravitas or its earthy sense of humor.

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As it moves toward an ambiguous and haunting finale, The Banshees of Inisherin has the fanciful yet gruesome quality of a folk tale or fairytale, a mood enhanced by Carter Burwell’s harp-and-flute-heavy score and Ben Davis’ painterly widescreen cinematography. Often, the camera pulls far back to emphasize the tininess and isolation of the town’s inhabitants in their dramatic cliffside setting. The character of Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), an old woman who stalks the island in a black cape, muttering cryptic pronouncements about various character’s fates, adds to the quasi-magical mood. But the story that unfolds between these two stubborn, lonely men is not supernatural but quintessentially, tragically human.

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I was a fan of McDonagh’s 2008 cult hit In Bruges, which also starred Gleeson and Farrell as an odd-couple pair of hitmen hiding out in the medieval Belgian city of the title, but The Banshees of Inisherin is the trio’s greatest work together to date. Colin Farrell, a reliably marvelous actor, has never had a role better suited to his gifts than the soulful simpleton that is Pádraic. As he peers through his recalcitrant friend’s window, his eyebrows forming a thatched roof of quizzical melancholy, his expression alone is enough to make us laugh, even as we fear for his safety and, in the film’s final third, his sanity. Gleeson’s fearsome, glowering Colm is an equally impressive creation, almost like a Samuel Beckett character in his saturnine self-containment. And every member of the extended cast, many of whom have worked with McDonagh before in theater productions, gives the kind of beautifully detailed performance that turns the specific into the universal. Especially unforgettable are Keoghan as the island’s holy fool, Condon as a bright young woman longing for a less provincial life, and Aaron Monaghan in a one-scene appearance as a musician friend of Colm’s on whom Pádraic plays an uncharacteristically cruel trick.

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The Banshees of Inisherin’s greatest gift to its audience is its refusal to turn its eccentric, intimate story into an allegory for anything other than what it is: the sad tale of an abruptly interrupted friendship in a beautiful, isolated place. Though the film takes on big questions about morality, loyalty, and the ultimate purpose and meaning of human life, McDonagh leaves us with no tidy moral lessons or injunctions about how to get on with our own friendships or otherwise conduct our lives. As the end credits roll, the audience is like the denizens of the movie’s eponymous island, left with only our own thoughts for company as we stare out at the implacable sea.

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