“The Banshees of Inisherin” (2022) is one of those rare movies that grows on you over time. You might even say that it slips up on you. It’s a quiet film that does nothing to beg for attention, but tells a story about mature adults in a real-world setting. In a year when I thought for sure that the bombastic “Top Gun: Maverick” would end up being my favorite film, “Banshees” claimed the top spot. It’s as good as any film I’ve seen in any year.
Set in 1923 on the (fictional) island of Inisherin off the coast of Ireland, writer-director Martin McDonagh’s film tells the story of two longtime friends who wind up in a civil war all their own. As a parable for the developing Irish Troubles on the mainland, “Banshees” examines the tragic break in the long-standing friendship between a craggy musician named Colm (Brendan Glesson) and a good-hearted but simple dairy farmer named Padraic (Colin Farrell). Part of what I love about this movie is that the plot is as uncomplicated as that – one man, Colm, decides to “defriend” the other, Padraic. There are no romantic subplots, no action-movie tropes, no other silly plotlines to cut to. McDonagh lets his characters simply be themselves without shoehorning in anything extra. His insistence on keeping the focus strictly on the main conflict is refreshing, even delightful.
Yet this is not to say the movie is simple; if anything, it’s extremely nuanced and complex. One day, Padraic, whose life is so uncomplicated that he’s shown with a rainbow over his shoulder, shows up at the seaside cottage of Colm expecting their usual walk down to the local pub. Little does poor Padraic know that his life has already changed. Colm, sitting inside, smoking, no longer wants to hang out. In fact, he wants nothing more to do with Padraic, ever.
Padraic, confused by his friend’s change in attitude, consults his sister, the warm and bookish Siobhan, played wonderfully by Kerry Condon. Siobhan jokingly suggests to her brother that Colm “just doesn’t like you anymore.” She’s hit the nail on the head. It isn’t that Colm hates Padraic; he just finds him “dull” and a waste of time.
Colm goes alone to the pub for a quiet drink, but Padraic confronts him, as he will do repeatedly. Colm demands that Padraic go his own way, but Padraic insists. Finally, Colm informs him that they are no longer friends; that he, Colm, would rather play his fiddle alone than listen to another word of Padraic’s insufferable “chatting.” Understandably, this breaks Padraic’s heart.
Farrell plays Padraic subtly, mostly with his eyebrows, as he absorbs Colm’s cutting remarks. The pain registers in his eyes and mouth, but he’s incapable of expressing anger. (A trait that changes over the course of the film.) Gleeson, on the other hand, buries Colm’s frustration in a performance full of unspoken misery. You can see how exasperated he has become with Padraic, simply in the way he carries himself, or stares in utter befuddlement at the man. “Can’t ya just leave me alone?” he demands. Good question; why can’t Padraic take the hint?
McDonagh and Farrell do a great job of suggesting that Padraic might be the loneliest, most pathetic man on the island. When Colm rejects him, he’s left with only his sister to talk to. There is also the village “gom,” Dominic, played with twitchy brilliance by Barry Keoghan. Dominic catches Padraic on trips to-and-from the pub, always rattling off inane questions that even Padraic finds annoying. They’re both outcasts who refuse to admit it. When we first meet Dom, he’s carrying a long stick with a hook on the end, wondering why anyone would ever need such a thing. When we finally learn its true purpose, it’s a moment of quietly shattering horror.
Padraic has one other friend, Jenny, his miniature donkey. Jenny becomes a major character in the film; indeed, if there is any subplot at all, it’s the way in which people interact with animals in such a brutal, inhospitable environment. Padraic has his donkey, cows and pony, Colm has his beloved sheep dog. These animals become pawns in the story later on, and not in a warm-and-fuzzy way.
McDonagh crafts the story in such a way that we never sympathize fully with either Padraic nor Colm. Sure, Colm might have a point – that the less time spent with a dullard the better, though his new policy might be for general use and not aimed at one man in particular. (Just how many other friends does Colm have, anyway?) When he cuts off all contact with Padraic, it seems he didn’t think things through – didn’t consider how Padraic might react after the initial shock, or how far things might go. Likewise, it’s clear that Padraic is overly-attached to Colm and would do well to develop other relationships (though it is also clear that Inisherin is not the place to find wonderful, interesting people). We can see both points of view, and find flaws in the responses of both men. All of which raises one of the most fascinating questions I’ve run across: is it ever right for one person to arbitrarily stop being friends with another?
In many cases, people who were once fast friends drift apart over time. This is usually done tactfully, without one person harshly spelling things out for the other. Colm might think he is just being honest, but there is a cruel short-sightedness to his actions. He should have known that Padraic was incapable of A) taking a hint or B) reacting well to rejection. (McDonagh also makes it brutally clear that Padraic has done nothing wrong, nor even offended Colm.)
The film quietly paints a portrait of desperate people living desperate, ragged lives in isolation on an island that seems almost humorously out of touch. Inisherin isn’t some charming fantasy land, but a rough-hewn, rain-swept, cold, dreary place of rocks and wind and mist. The rugged location combined with the dueling between Colm and Padraic elevates the film above the mere humdrum into the realm of something like a fairy tale, or myth. The story of how these two good friends become mortal enemies seems more like a legend, a bedtime story designed to give kids a moral question to ponder. But there’s nothing about it for kids at all; this movie is for adults to chew on.
There is so much humor that the tragedy lands with a sting. Dom is played a bit for laughs, his limited brain capacity sometimes revealing nuggets of hard-earned wisdom. He’s in love with Siobhan but not smart enough to keep his feelings to himself; in one of the movie’s most tragic yet humorous scenes, he makes a clumsy move on her, resulting in a shot that grows in importance the more you think about it. This kid is doomed, but his heart is in the right place; one can’t help but think that with a little help, or perhaps if he had ever escaped the island, things might have turned out better.
But does life turn out better for anyone on Inisherin? It’s the classic small town with small-minded people. Only Siobhan has the sense to know there is a larger world out there, and that if she wants to be happy, she’s got to go out in it. Poor Padraic will never know this lesson; he simply wants to maintain the status quo. But the world changes, and people with it, leaving Padraic with options that go from bad to worse.
“Banshees” is the blackest of dark comedies; it’s also the cruelest of dramas. There are at least three scenes that make me gasp in shock, and one that’s as sad as anything you’re ever likely to see. Yet there are moments so funny that I can’t help but laugh out loud – the more times I see it, the funnier these moments become. The acting is sublime, from the main parts to the smallest – all of the principal actors earned Oscar nominations, as did McDonagh, for Best Picture and Best Director. (It got shut out, undeservedly, by the overrated “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”) The film plausibly creates situations that had me thinking, “he cut off his nose to spite his own face,” and gives new meaning to the phrase “collateral damage.” It’s the kind of movie you’ll still be thinking about days after you’ve seen it, and perhaps looking at your best friend in a whole new light.