VIFF 2022: The Banshees of Inisherin

Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Distributed by: Searchlight Pictures

Written by Anna Harrison


Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are, upon first glance, the most oddly matched acting duo of our time. It’s not just the physical differences—Farrell, younger, slighter, dark-haired; Gleeson, older, larger, fair-haired—but the way they carry themselves: Farrell’s trademark caterpillar eyebrows do the talking for him, lending him an expressiveness it’s hard to imagine could be captured by anyone with smaller eyebrows, whereas Gleeson’s craggy face barely twitches as he talks, though is no less effective for that. Yet it’s precisely these differences that make them such a good pair, something that Martin McDonagh first discovered in 2008’s “In Bruges” and uses again here in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a gloomy, darkly comedic return to McDonagh’s best subject: depressed Irish Catholics harboring suicidal tendencies.

Pádraic Súillebháin (Farrell) and Colm Doherty (Gleeson) are the best of friends, until one day, quite suddenly, they’re not. “I just don’t like you no more,” Colm explains, and that’s that. In Colm’s defense, Pádraic is a bit “dull,” as others put it: he’s more interested in the goings-on of his miniature donkey, Jenny, than reading—like his sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon)—or picking up an instrument—like Colm, who loves the fiddle—and doesn’t even know who Mozart is. This all suits Pádraic just fine, as he is more than happy with his Jenny, whom he lets roam around the house, and his 2 o’clock pint with his best friend before Colm severs that friendship. Though even Siobhan, herself endlessly patient and whip-smart, admits that yes, Pádraic can be a little dull, no one can deny he’s just about the kindest person on the small island they all call home. Unfortunately, that’s no longer enough for Colm, who wants his twilight years to be full of enriching conversation and good music—not things Pádraic can bring to the table. Pádraic initially puts this down to “depression” on Colm’s part, assuming it’ll be over soon, yet when he continues to talk to Colm, Colm threatens to lop off a finger the next time. (This being a Martin McDonagh film, of course, he goes through with it.)

It’s absurd, of course, but then again the whole island is absurd: all anyone has are their grievances. “You’re all boring!” Siobhan tells them, fed up with the small-mindedness. Even Colm, the ostensible intellectual on the island (though Siobhan has to correct him about which century Mozart lived in), does the same thing day in and day out; the only difference between him and Pádraic is that Colm enjoys a wider variety of conversational topics. He still follows the same patterns, drinks the same drink, and is willing to ruin his fiddle skills just to spite Pádraic, who is at least kind.

It’s hard to stay kind, however, when your best friend abandons you and your remaining friends are your sister, your donkey, and the town weirdo, Dominic (Barry Keoghan). As the Irish Civil War comes to a stuttering stop over on the mainland, the one on Inisherin is only heating up, and while it could all be read as a metaphor, it’s just as much a simple character study of a few miserable people. “How’s the despair?” the priest (David Pearse) shipped over from the mainland asks Colm every week. His answer varies.

They might all be miserable, but McDonagh’s caustic wit is on full display here as we traverse this tiny island. If there aren’t as many one-liners as “In Bruges” (“cunt fucking kids” comes to mind), it’s only because the humor has been so diffused amongst the script and amidst the misery that it has become part of the parlance. Much of it comes from Dominic, whose strangeness and lack of manners don’t quite hide his loneliness; Keoghan, who has made a living playing the village freak, has never been so good as he is here, most especially when Dominic makes a halting confession of love to Siobhan. Condon, for her part, is nothing short of spectacular, and while the show rightfully belongs to Gleeson and Farrell—and McDonagh’s biting script (though his direction is none too shabby as well, and Ben Davis crafts some beautiful images amongst the hills while Carter Burwell’s lilting score swells)—none of it would come together had Keoghan and Condon fallen short.

But, in the end, it is all about Pádraic and Colm, and Farrell’s innocence contrasted with Gleeson’s reserve makes for some riveting acting: Farrell as Pádraic begins to take stock of his own shortcomings amidst deep, newfound loneliness; Gleeson as Colm ruminates on his own life and finds it devoid of anything meaningful. When the two men are confronted with their own feeble existence, their answer is to self-immolate. It seems that only Siobhan can escape the island and make something out of her life—the others are doomed. How’s the despair? It won’t get any better for Pádraic and Colm.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” Trailer

“The Banshees of Inisherin” screened as part of the 2022 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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