A film review by Craig J. Koban November 23, 2022

Rank: #1


2022, R, 109 mins.

Colin Farrell as Pádraic  /  Brendan Gleeson as Colm  /  Kerry Condon as Siobhán  /  Barry Keoghan as Dominic  

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh



Writer/director Martin McDonagh's THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN manages to cut so emotionally deep despite its simple, but ghastly premise.  It's the kind of film where everything - even very early on -  just seems to click into place.  Everything from the direction to the performances to its evocation of a time from a century ago is in perfect synch with one another and is executed to a masterful level.  That, and THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN represents a triumphant reunion picture for McDonagh and his stars Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, who last worked together to make one of the most underrated films of the 2000s in the hitman dramedy IN BRUGES (which, yes, I thought deserved very worthy comparisons to PULP FICTION).  This fourth film from the acclaimed British-Irish playwright and director could not be anymore different from that 2008 caper, but it shares the same qualities in terms of being a real psychologically rich gut punch and one that marries pathos and gallows humor as good as any film I've seen. 

I laughed a lot during THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN when it wasn't making me recoil in absolute horror.  In some respects, this hybrid of ultra black comedy and devastatingly raw drama could also be felt in McDonagh's last picture, his multiple Oscar nominated and winning THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.  It's a decidedly tricky balancing act to pull that off without alienating the audience.  In many respects, THE BANSHEES ON INISHERIN is arguably the bleakest - and perhaps funniest - work on McDonagh's already superlative resume, which chronicles a nightmarishly doomed friendship between two Irish men in turn of the last century Ireland.  The film is almost diabolically hard to watch as we see one of these men pathetically do everything he can to mend his doomed long-term relationship with a former bestie, with the latter going to - shall we say - horrifically unorthodox methods to keep his distance.  Gleeson and Farrell play the former friends in question, and much like their tour de force performance dynamics in the Belgium set IN BRUGES from 15 years ago, the actors once again effortlessly slip back into the same kind on natural and unforced chemistry that makes both films so endlessly enthralling.   

And, again, McDonagh's script is as economical as they come, but its revelations and payoffs are anything but predictable.  It's 1923 and - in a bravura establishing shot - we're whisked to the fictional small Irish isle of Inisherin during the more hellish stages of the Irish Civil War (that war's battles, gunfire, and explosions can be very easily seen and heard by the folks on Inisherin from across the bay, but they all seem to shrug it off and go about their days with relative normalcy).  Farrell (in what's easily a career high performance) plays Pádraic, a very modest rural man that lives with his sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon, another acting treasure here) and their animals, the most important of which being a prized donkey that the brother treats almost like a dog.  Pádraic spends most of his days hanging out at the local watering hole with his drinking buddies, with Colm (Gleeson) being - in his mind - his tightest pal.  Life seems good for Pádraic in Inisherin...that is until Colm one fateful day decides - with warning or reason - to stop being friends with him.  The exasperated Pádraic can't fathom why Colm doesn't want to be mates anymore, but his rational is blunt and to the point: "I don't have a place for dullness in my life anymore." 

Predictably, poor Pádraic has a crisis of conscious.  Is he really too stupid and, well, dull to be worthy of Colm's companionship anymore?  To be fair, though, there were no direct warning signs that Colm was going to permanently sever ties with him, so it's easy to see why Pádraic is confused and emotionally hurt by this news.  But, to also be fair to Colm, he doesn't break up with him in a truly venomous manner.  He just soft-spokenly tells him that he no longer wants his company and wants to spend the last few remaining years he has left tending to his music.  Fair enough.  But, the sad sack that is Pádraic doesn't buy this, even though Siobhán dryly informs him, "Maybe he just don't like you no more."  That only hurts the already massively butthurt Pádraic, who then makes it his aggressive mission to make Colm rethink his decision. 



It's at this point when THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN becomes really, really dark. 

The more rejected that Pádraic feels the more he approaches and - in turn - annoys the hell out of Colm, who keeps telling the lad that he just wants peace and quiet away from him.  Pádraic stubbornly doesn't get the message and then pesters the increasingly angry Colm, until he finally gives his ex-BFF an ultimatum: 

If he comes to talk to him one more time then he'll cut off one of his fingers with a pair of sheep shears and leave the bloody digit at his door.  

If Pádraic still continues to bother him after that he will cut off another finger for each intrusion into his privacy.  

Of course, Pádraic thinks Colm is bluffing, as does their mutual friend in the town idiot, Dominic (an amazing Barry Keoghan).  Pádraic decides to call his bluff, and Colm very quickly shows that, yup, he wasn't bluffing at all and keeps his end of the promise. 

Before I deep dive into this remarkably grisly chain of events that develop in this film, it needs to be said that McDonagh has easily made his most beautiful looking film to date here.  With the aid of Ben Davis' astoundingly picturesque cinematography (especially on display in that aforementioned opening overhead shot that establishes the geographical particulars of this cozy, but majestic Irish isle), McDonagh creates a world that immediately  makes you feel that you've time warped to its location and era in question (it was actually shot in the Aran Island at the mouth of Galway Bay, and it's proof positive why real location shooting will always be more effective than faking it with visual effects and green screen stages).  That, and it's an area of the world and a historical period that rarely, if ever, has been given cinematic screen time before, which makes THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN work that much better as a unique out-of-body experience: The more time I spent in this island off the coast of Ireland the more I felt fully transported to it.  McDonagh also does an exemplary job of grounding us in this small tucked away area of the world that's void of advances in the Industrial Revolution.  People still travel in horse and buggies, electricity is a pipe dream luxury that hasn't hit, and the only manner of long distance correspondence is telegraphs.  The modest folk that reside here do two things: working on their farms and drinking like crazy post-work.  That's about it.  As one islander hilariously puts it at one point, "You live on an island off of the coast of Ireland...what the hell were ya hopin' for?" 

In this respect, maybe it was only a matter of time before the locals starting getting severely on each others' nerves.  I mean, there's a bloody Civil War erupting daily in their very backyards, but McDonagh's film is not about delving into the atrocities and horrors of war, but rather how simple people try to carry on their very meager lives with this larger conflict erupting around them (but without directly impacting them).  The war doesn't stop the people of Inisherin from having fun, but the whole social landscape is thrown into upheaval with the cerebral battle of wits between Colm and Pádraic, who begin waging their own two-man civil war against one another.  Still, the musician in Colm just wants to focus on his latest creative enterprise, which involves him shutting out any unwanted distractions.  This gives the film an element of mystery too and does allow us to ask some questions, like why does he just start taking a hating to Pádraic?  Is it really because he's a dullard or is it because Colm is a cold hearted SOB?  The longer that THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN proceeds the more it appears that the simplest answer is the right one: Colm finds Pádraic dull and wants no more on him.  That's it.  That's all.  But Pádraic just doesn't get it through his sensitive, but thick skull, so he continues to poke this bear of internalized rage until one of his fiddle fingers ends up at his door.   

It's so rare to have any film these days that has such a brutal emotional honesty when it comes to male relationships and the best and worst aspects of toxic male behavior, but THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN accomplishes this with startling precision.  McDonagh's story is not just about male bonding, but it's also about the traumatizing fear of loneliness and how being tossed aside to the gutter by one friend can make another become engulfed in anger and resentment.  Colm's sin is that he wasn't exactly tactful in breaking things off with Pádraic, whereas Pádraic's sin is that he refuses to let things go.  This leads to one of them engaging in decision that seems barbarically nonsensical at first, but shows how far some men will go to get their points across.  And when Colm goes to extreme measures to ensure that Pádraic stays the hell away it only makes him become increasingly driven to pester him back, inevitably leading to more...ya know.  On a psychological level, these men are a mess, but the film finds a way to allow audiences to miraculously empathize with both of them.  Pádraic is a fairly decent man with noble intentions and a good heart, but he's too aggressively needy and fails to understand the nature of finality and respecting another's personal space.  Colm's handling of this whole situation seems fanatical, but deep down he's a world weary man that's become enslaved by concerns over his mortality and that he's poised to leave the world without anything of value.  Maybe he has wasted too much of his time boozing with his pals and not focusing on his musical aspirations?

The carefully modulated interplay between McDonagh and his actors is on proud display here, and the manner that the grizzled old veteran in Glesson and his much younger partner in crime in Farrell manage to create a sense of their character's long history with such minimal strokes is this film's proudest achievement.  As was the case with IN BRUGES, these two are so wonderfully aligned and engage one another with such spirited give and take that it becomes impossible to imagine this film with any other actors at the helm.  Gleeson scores some of the most memorable moments in the film with his incredulous reactions to his former pal's constant harassment (he also has one of the best stern poker faces of the movies).  Farrell, on the other hand, has to play a man of both tunnel visioned inflexibility and wounded vulnerability that gets the absolute better of him.  When THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN simply has these two men face off - and often with no one else around - there's an ethereal aura of tension filled electricity in the air.  McDonagh's super dry and colorfully region and time period specific dialogue (often laced with Irish slang based obscenities) always helps too, and often the pleasure of sitting through this film is in listening to its ballet of verbal one-upmanship. 

The supporting performances are all Oscar caliber too, like Condon in the very tricky role of playing the lone female voice of reason in this crazy sausage fest of a town dominated by petty and childish male squabbles.  She loves her brother dearly, but feels trapped by the misogynistic wars that needlessly typify her island, leading to her wanting to get the hell out of there as quickly as she can when she realizes that there's no hope in sight for these men (she might also be one of the few actors on screen that can imposingly hold her own next to the likes of the hulking Gleeson).  I also really liked Keoghan (who last appeared in a blink-or-you'll-miss-him cameo as The Joker in THE BATMAN) who's intellectually diminutive manner scores some of the best laughs and most poignant moments of pure heartbreak in the film.  There are so many other well engineered characters almost too numerous to mention, but Dominic's physically and mentally abusive father/town constable (Gary Lydon) comes to mind, not to mention a creepy elder woman that seems to appear and disappear at will and sometimes looks like Death from Ingmar Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL.   

If there were one nitpicky criticism that I would levy against THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN then it would be that it contains less of a story than it does a series of character building (or imploding) vignettes, and the savage turns of the plot may have some with weak stomachs running for the theater exits.  But McDonagh is working on a whole other level here as well while once again submerging his story within small scale settings that manages to say something profound about his deeply flawed and troubled characters.  THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN plays a high wire act with audiences by asking them to embrace the macabre absurdities at play in his tale while also showing the fragility of friendships and how they bring out unspeakable levels of violence when some parties are pushed to the brink.  There's something so indescribably strange about McDonagh's film, but also hauntingly depressing about it as well.  He's an unparalleled master of the tragicomic genre, and THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN might arguably be his finest hour behind the camera.  There have been very few films from 2022 thus far that have made me think long and hard about them well after exiting my screening and have prompted me to make a return to the cinema to see it for a second time.  This one accomplishes that rare feat.  

Feck, does it ever. 

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