Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Colin Farrell (Pádraic Súilleabháin), Brendan Gleeson (Colm Doherty), Kerry Condon (Siobhan Súilleabháin), Barry Keoghan (Dominic Kearney), Pat Shortt (Jonjo Devine), Jon Kenny (Gerry), Brid Ni Neachtain (Mrs O’Riordan), Gary Lydon (Paedar Kearney), Aaron Monaghan (Declan), Shelia Fitton (Mrs McCormick), David Pearse (Priest)
Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are life-long friends on the small Irish island of Inisherin. Until one day, in 1923, Colm bluntly says he won’t speak to Pádraic again as “I just don’t like ya no more”. What on earth has led to this seemingly permanent severance? Did Pádraic do something wrong? The torment of not knowing will create a huge strain on Padraic, who prides himself on “being nice” and can’t understand why the older Colm doesn’t want to chat him. Just as Colm can’t understand why Pádraic can’t leave him alone, especially as he is almost universally agreed to be dull. Eventually this blunt stop to a friendship swiftly escalates out of all control.
McDonagh’s film is packed with the scintillating dialogue you would expect, and he combines it with an intriguing, tragedy-tinged character study where two sympathetic characters tip themselves into destruction through the unwillingness of either of them to compromise. It’s no coincidence that the film is set during the Irish Civil War. Cut off from the mainland on their tranquil island (where life feels like it hasn’t changed for the best part of 100 years), the characters are disturbed from their own civil war, every now and again, by the sound of gunfire and explosions from the mainland. The Banshees of Inisherin can be seen as a commentary on civil wars: don’t they all start, essentially, from someone deciding they have had enough and “just don’t like ya” anymore?
This marvellously rich film boils down a whole country tearing itself apart over what sort of future it wants, into one personal clash over two people’s future. The future increasingly obsesses Colm, a man preoccupied with mortality (who assumes his life can now be counted in years rather than decades), suffering from depression, worried he will disappear leaving no mark. A talented fiddle player, he wants to be like Mozart, remembered decades later – and he can’t do that wasting time every day for hours on end listening to Pádraic talking about his “wee donkey’s shite”.
It’s a perspective on the future, that Pádraic just can’t understand. For him, what does it matter what people you’ll never meet think about you? What matters to him is that the people around him like him and remember him as a “nice fella”. Not in a million years does legacy occur to him: the familiarity of everyday being the same is the most comforting thing, and change a horrific and terrifying thing to be avoided as much as possible.
You can see all this instantly in Colin Farrell’s heart-rending performance as this gentle, fragile but unimaginative soul, heart-broken at the inexplicable loss of his best friend. The film is a striking reminder that, contrary to his looks, Farrell’s best work is in embodying lost souls, the sort of people never ready for the life’s hurdles. Pádraic certainly isn’t, and his attempt to process what has happened defeats him. A man who considers his pet goat his next best friend and is as reliant as a child on his sister, doesn’t have the ability to understand what Colm is driving at about mortality, assuming instead he will stumble across the right words to be welcomed back into Colm’s company. He becomes the unstoppable object, trying to batter down Colm’s wall of silence.
He’s onto a losing battle, as Colm reveals himself to be – either due to his depression or his just not caring any more – the immovable force. Wonderfully played with a tinge of sadness and a depression-induced monomania, by Brendan Gleeson, Colm is a decent guy in many ways but fails to appreciate or consider the effect his actions will have on others. Instead he is focused on achieving at least something notable from his life. It leads to dramatic steps to drive Pádraic away, Colm threatening to cut off one of his fiddle playing fingers every time Pádraic bothers him, a threat he transpires to be more than willing to carry out.
And so civil war breaks out. As well as the parallels with Ireland’s war, I also felt strong echoes of our own poisoned social-media discourse. By his own lights, Colm believes his sudden severing of contact with Pádraic is perfectly reasonable. Many people who have “ghosted” others no doubt feel the same. Colm is reasonable when he explains it, and he still steps in with silent acts of comfort and support when Pádraic falls foul of the island’s brutish police office. But he never considers the traumatic impact this unexplained change will have on Pádraic – or how flashes of kindness can be as cruel as hours of non-acknowledgement.
Radicalism, in civil war and social media, quickly takes hold. What else can you call Colm’s threat to slice off his own fingers (the fingers he needs to live his dream of fiddle-playing legacy)? Just like people blowing hard on Twitter, he needs to deliver or lose face. Pádraic makes angry, passionate condemnations of Colm in the pub, like he’s posting rants online. Things escalate to a point where no-one feels they can step away or backdown.
That’s the tragedy McDonagh identifies here. This one decision of Colm’s – no matter the motives – ends up having disastrous effects on both men. Pádraic changes from a gentle soul to someone capable of wrathful fury and lifelong grudges. Colm literally disfigures himself, guaranteeing he will never achieve the very thing he started this for. Could there be a better parable for the destructive nature of civil combat? Neither Colm or Pádraic are willing to compromise: what if Colm said he would only see Pádraic once or twice a week, eh? Just like Ireland, they burn the world down.
This all takes place in a rich framework, with McDonagh skilfully working in clever, challenging sub-plots. The legend of the banshee, who foretold death and enjoyed watching destruction, is woven throughout, embodied by the sinister Mrs McCormick (a ghostly Shelia Fitton). The most forward-looking person on the island is Pádraic’s sister Siobhan – brilliantly played by Kerry Condon – who finds herself wondering why on earth she stays in such a self-destructive small-world. Barry Keoghan (also superb) plays the universally acknowledged village dunce, who (if you stop and listen to him) quotes French and poetry and (for all his crudeness and lack of social graces) is clearly a man stunted under the heel of his abusive father, the village policeman.
As events escalate and rush out of control – McDonagh’s pacing is very effective here – the film slows for carefully judged moments of emotional power, from the burial of a beloved pet to a character weeping in bed at the painful choices that must be made. McDonagh has created a powerful universal metaphor for the dangers of extreme, definitive choices and a total rejection of compromise by boiling it down to the smallest scale possible.
And your sympathies ebb and flow, due to the beautiful performances from its leads. Farrell is heartbreaking, a memory you carry as he becomes more vengeful. Gleeson is coldly reasonable, even as we grow to understand his crushing sense of mortality and character-altering depression. These two actors power an intelligent and thought-provoking film that achieves a huge amount with subtle and rewarding brushstrokes.