I think we all have someone in our lives (or have had, or will have — if you’re reading this, it’s not you) that we could do without. Not in a malicious or hateful way, but more an acknowledgement that they bring little to our table, contributing fluff and maybe peripheral, momentary entertainment, but not much else. A filler friend. These relationships are almost always a one-way street — unreciprocated — although one party usually remains blissfully unaware of that. Such is the deceptively simple premise of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s brilliant The Banshees of Inisherin, a darkly comic and witty drama that becomes a soul-crushing tragedy if you think about it too hard.
Banshees revolves around two lifelong friends, Pádraic (a career-best Colin Farrell) and Colm (the reliably stern and acerbic Brendan Gleeson) living on the titular fictional isle amidst the Irish Civil War in 1923. The film begins with Pádraic coming to the realisation that Colm no longer wants anything to do with him. Pádraic tries to process his incredulity with his sister, Siobhán (the glorious Kerry Condon) and the troubled local village idiot Dominic (a beautifully balanced and pathetic Barry Keoghan) without success. Finally confronting Colm directly results in a shocking ultimatum that provides surprisingly scant further explanation. You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a text or email goes unanswered, and you have no idea whether you’ve caused offence, or the recipient just hasn’t seen the message yet? Banshees is approximately 110 minutes of that feeling.
McDonagh reunites his In Bruges leads and wisely dumps us right at the beginning of their parting, giving no context nor insight as to whom is at fault. The fact that you may well spend the duration of the film (as I did) oscillating between allegiances is a testament to Farrell and Gleeson’s nuanced performances and McDonagh’s deft, efficient writing.
On the one hand, Farrell’s Pádraic is endearing and personable, but to the exact extent that you can immediately recognise how quickly he would become overbearing. On the other, Gleeson’s Colm might initially appear to have overreacted, but the more he implies that he’s entitled to spend his life in a more meaningful way, the more I found myself sympathising with him. It’s the setting that makes his actions seem extreme — today, ignoring people is easy. Imagine being literally trapped for life on an island with The Person I mentioned in the first paragraph.
The script is funny as a fit. The idiosyncratic humour is performed with such genuine heart you could be forgiven for thinking some of the more casual interactions were improvised. Unexpected characters get delightful throwaway lines and every sentence does something. Not only is it highly amusing, but McDonagh’s use of language is fascinating to listen to. Subsequent rewatches will also likely reveal even more of his subtler character beats. My personal favourite is Colm’s skill as a fiddler (which, admittedly, may have more to do with Gleeson’s performance). His life as a composer and musician is one of the cruxes of his desire for more solitude and to be taken seriously. But as a player and writer, he’s...just okay? And Pádraic knows it, too.
Unsurprisingly, the film is gorgeous. Ben Davis’ cinematography highlights striking and unusual angles of the Irish countryside that prodded the wanderlust of this travel-starved writer. Composer Carter Burwell’s score seems to intentionally (and smartly) undermine our lilting, folky expectations in favour of something darker, simpler and more character-based. Our presumptions of a Celtic soundscape make Burwell’s choices stand out like a sore thumb. Something feels off.
On a fundamental level, Banshees explores our need to be liked and desire for co-dependency. Colm’s actions seem cold and heartless because to be treated that way in 2023 would seem like borderline emotional abuse. But conversely, in the age of Living Your Truth, Colm would be encouraged to live in whichever way seems most fulfilling and authentic to himself. Which is exactly what he does. Countless inspirational quotations on social media (usually penned by Anonymous) encourage you to do the same. Perhaps the true effectiveness of the film comes from our own denial that we could ever be Pádraic.
The Banshees of Inisherin is in cinemas now.