A densely compacted tragic fable on friendship, breakups, art, passions, and how one spends one’s life, Banshees of Inisherin is one of the year’s most rewarding films, with a collection of brilliant performances by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and Barry Keoghan amplifying an extraordinary script by Oscar winning filmmaker Martin McDonagh.
At the tail end of the Irish Civil War in 1923, on the outskirts of the conflict sits the fictitious isle of Inisherin, a quiet town that feels universal in both place and time. The conversations and bickering being had on Inisherin could be happening in the 1920s, 1820s, or even today. Revered playwright turned filmmaker Martin Mcdonagh often plays with the idea of places as a form of purgatory for his characters, with Inisherin being no exception.
Reuniting after 14 years, Mcdonagh, Farrell, and Gleeson echo their masterpiece In Bruges (2008) throughout Banshees, making for a perfect double feature. Gleeson plays Colm, a folk musician in Inisherin who decides, for unclear reasons, to abruptly ignore and reject his long-time friend Pádraic, played by Farrell. He tells Pádraic he finds him dull and would rather spend the rest of his days composing music, wanting to leave behind a legacy rather than drink at the pub and listen to idle conversation. The actors seem to mirror the disposition of the other in these two films, with Farrell turning from a vessel of guilt to a sweetheart, and Gleeson from a kind and endearing soul to a self-absorbed and increasingly cruel man.
The setup is simple with the characters devolving as Pádraic’s desire to understand and rekindle this relationship with his closest friend persists. As Pádraic continues in his endeavour, Colm’s threats towards him to be left alone grow more and more extreme, leading to truly shocking places.
What allows Banshees to thrive is its ability to entertain throughout as a film of friendship, art, and finding meaning in one’s life, as well as operating at an incredibly high level of thematic and political resonance. McDonagh has grown exponentially as a visual storyteller, allowing his sharp pen to relax and to allow the other aspects of cinema to communicate his themes and ideas in deeply rewarding ways.
A series of thematic ties to Colm and Van Gogh plays both into the conflict the musician is feeling about his life and his work, and his desire to emit a legacy in a town that is absent of one. Gleeson gives a nuanced and subtle performance that should hopefully be rewarded in the awards season, exuding pathos and despair in a world he finds incredibly meaningless. In an interview with GQ, production designer Mark Tildesley describes Colm’s home like a Van Gogh painting;
“When you get into Colm’s house, the inside is almost like a Van Gogh painting. It’s yellow, bright. It has a red floor, which is an old oilskin from sailcloth, and a black ceiling, [which] are strong colours for a period film.”Hannah Strong, GQ
These striking visual choices and the obvious allusion to Van Gogh’s ear with Colm’s threat of mutilation further cement the comparison between artists. The genius of this thematic connection is in how the filmmakers create the ties through the character Colm’s own choices, not their own. The sadness of the Colm story is his desperate need to have his work evaluated and celebrated, something we are never actually shown. We never hear his completed works so his projected idea of himself as this tortured artist is never redeemed for us as the audience, allowing only the pathos and cruelty of his decisions to fester throughout. What allows the very best character-led dramas to succeed is in creating a world that is believably crafted by its characters, something Banshees achieves superbly.
The war of friends is a microcosm of the civil war taking place on its fringes in heartbreaking ways. There are better places to learn of the Irish civil war, but in essence, it was an internal struggle between the Irish about the ownership of land by the British, occurring shortly after the Irish War of Independence that created the free state. Viewing Colm and Pádraic’s falling out between brothers, devolving into increasing brutality (both to their land and personhood) in this historical sense allows the weight of this quirky comedy to ascend to greater heights. The heartbreak at the conclusion of the film is further extended with the knowledge of the troubles to come.
But to call The Banshees of Inisherin a political film about the Irish Civil War would be to reduce the breadth of ideas McDonagh is working with here. Complicated characters working against each other and their place in the world for seemingly asinine reasons, inside a deeply enjoyable and melancholic comedy, is the work of a master writer at the top of his game.
Banshees is a brilliant balancing act that consistently grounds itself in its characters, never allowing its more ethereal themes to float away into wistful abstraction. McDonagh is at the top of his game both as a writer and filmmaker here, allowing the non dialogue heavy moments to shine as much as the musicality of his feckin’ barbs to create one of the year’s best films.
The Banshees of Inisherin is in select theatres from Boxing Day.