Everything was fine yesterday… such simple words, but yet it packs a punch when it’s uttered from one friend to another. It sounds funny when I first heard it, but when I think more about it, it’s quite poignant, distressing even. And that’s how Martin McDonagh‘s The Banshees of Inisherin operates from start to finish.
Set on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland in the year 1923, the country was in the midst of a violent Civil War. The people of Inisherin seem to be spared of the bloodshed, though it doesn’t mean they’re spared of conflict of their own. The movie starts happily enough, the sun is shining as Pádraic (Colin Farrell) walks through the landscape of the moor, greeting the townsfolks as he makes his trek to his best pal Colm (Brendan Gleeson) as he usually does. It’s almost time for their usual meet-up at the pub, but when he reaches Colm’s home, he refuses to answer the door.
When they finally meet at the pub, Colm calmly tells Pádraic to sit somewhere else. As the two men sit at the pub’s outdoor table, he tells him point blank he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Pádraic’s reaction is more of a disbelief… after all, everything was fine yesterday, he tells Colm. When he shares what happened with his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon), she casually remarks that perhaps Colm doesn’t like him anymore. Pádraic gets even more confused, but not for lack of clarification as Colm couldn’t have been more frank that he doesn’t ever want to hang out with him anymore. The more Colm retracts, the more Pádraic pesters him about their friendship (what remains of it anyways).
Pádraic’s state of bewilderment makes me laugh and Farrell plays his stubborn denseness to perfection. This standoff makes for an amusing scenario at first, but it grows darker and more sinister the longer it goes on. Pádraic simply refuses to take no for an answer, and Colm takes drastic measures to convince Pádraic to stay away from him. Colm gives Pádraic an ultimatum: if he so much as utters a word to him, he’d take a pair of gardening shears and cut off his fingers.
That notion alone is extreme for any person, but it’s even more drastic given the fact that Colm is a fiddler and a pretty good one at that, too. In fact, one of the reasons he wants to move on from simple-minded Pádraic is that he wants to fill his days with more meaningful things in his life, i.e. classical music, intelligent conversations, etc. As he feels life is fleeting, Colm simply has no room for dullness anymore. I actually think Colm is acting like a snob, but y’know what, it’s his own life and he should be free to spend it however and with whomever he wishes to.
The Farrell-Gleeson reunion is what sold the movie to me, and their performances are definitely the reason to see this. Gleeson is the more subdued of the two but they’re equally effective. Though McDonagh tries his best not to take sides, I really feel for Pádraic as the one being shunned. His groveling, however misguided, is heart-rending and his relationship with his pet miniature donkey Jenny (quite the scene stealer!) is so endearing. I’d say this is one of Farrell’s strongest works to date, quite a feat in a year where he delivered three masterful performances in The Batman and After Yang, respectively. It’s also a reunion of sorts for Farrell and Barry Keoghan as they both were The Batman (though they didn’t share a scene together), as Penguin and the Joker, respectively.
I have a bit of a blindspot when it comes to McDonagh’s work, having only seen In Bruges which also starred Farrell and Gleeson. This film is only the fourth feature that he wrote and directed, five years after his Oscar-nominated original screenplay for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He’s clearly adept at mixing violence and humor, though this one is perhaps pretty mild by his standards.
While Colm and Pádraic’s fractured relationship is at the center of the film, McDonagh touches upon personal trauma, loneliness, and isolation. Condon and Keoghan as Dominic, a troubled young man living with his abusive father, provide memorable supporting turns. Condon’s Siobhan gets dragged into her brother’s conflict while she too is dealing with her desire to break free from the island, I have to say her storyline provides a glimmer of hope in an otherwise somber affair.
Ben Davis’s cinematography is decidedly gloomy, as most of the film is lit with natural light. It certainly creates an atmospheric vibe with a potent sense of dread. I suppose it’s appropriate as the story is steeped in Irish folklore. The ‘banshee’ in Celtic mythology refers to a female spirit whose appearance or wailing warns a family that one of them will soon die. Perhaps Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), the village’s creepy old lady is supposed to represent that. The location with its lush greenery and dramatic cliffs is a character in itself, as intrinsic to the story as the two leads. It’s filmed partly on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, beautifully rugged and stark but emanating such bleakness that’s hard to shake.
I can’t pretend to fully grasp what McDonagh’s trying to say here. There’s a Shakespearean influence in that the story starts out as a comedy and ends in a tragedy. I come away not as enamored with this film as I thought I would. It’s something I appreciate, even admire, but not love.
Have you seen The Banshees of Inisherin? I’d love to hear what you think!