Career best Colin Farrell navigates death of friendship in The Banshees of Inisherin

Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, at once a black comedy and poignant drama about a tragedy—the death of lifelong friendship on an Irish isle circa 1923—sets the stage for the best film of 2022. 

11 mins read

Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, at once a black comedy and poignant drama about a grand tragedy—the death of lifelong friendship on an Irish isle circa 1923—sets the stage for perhaps the best film of 2022. 

McDonagh, the prolific British-Irish playwright (The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman) turned filmmaker who wrote and directed such offbeat pictures as the Belgian-set buddy crime comedy In Bruges and the middle America morality play Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has crafted perhaps his most fully-realized film, an incisive fable charting a tenuous adult male friendship and told with pointed, near folkloric impressions on small town attitudes and mores, and a passionate defense of simple kindness as critical to our substance.

Such kindness, as tends to happen, can easily become a casualty of a world that works hard toward its eradication. And this is but a fraction of a deceptively small picture which, by the time it reaches its concluding scene of two characters on beach staring upon the open sea, has expanded to accommodate the whole of the human condition. 

Picture opens in 1923 on the fictional Irish island of Inisherin amongst a coterie of what appears to be about thirty residents. While the island is to Ireland proper it is quietly self-isolated, and to its residents the world outside seems as if it doesn’t exist, McDonagh mounting a quaint, near hermetically sealed world where even the Irish Civil War, with its distant mainland explosions, hardly makes a rumble in the island’s routines, which consist of farming, trips the post office and only seaport, perfunctory social visits and nightly knock backs at the local pub.

Everybody knows everybody (and everybody’s business) and integral to this lifelong community kinship is that pub, a destination of near religious afternoon and evening devotion, and one which simple farmer Padriac (Colin Farrell, a marvel) and his sole and best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) frequent together without exception. Padriac lives in small cottage with sister Siobahn (Kerry Condon, a revelation), and tends to a few cows, a pony and a beloved donkey. He wants for nothing more, unlike Siobahn, whose interest in literature and a world away from the isle’s cloistered environs finds her harboring a clandestine job offer in library on the mainland.

And then, a realization from Colm: “I just don’t like you anymore.” Understandably confused Padriac initially puts it down to depression. After all, he’s “one of life’s good guys,” or at least he’s told so by his jovial barman (Pat Shortt). But Padriac, who won’t take the brush off, pushes the issue until Colm explains that in the time he’s got left on Earth he’d much prefer to take up fiddle playing rather than hear about the contents of his gentle friend’s donkey’s shiite. Padriac’s response? “It was me pony’s shiite. Which shows how much you were listening.”

Colm goes a step further, advising Padraic that should he not relent he’ll cut off a finger each time Padraic so much as acknowledges him. At this point, one might wonder if Colm might have taken a different approach, like, say three days a week together at the pub rather than seven? Colm isn’t joking, and as increasingly lonely and abandoned Padraic, who has no other affection in life other than his faithful donkey, Jenny, continues the persistence. You can see where this is going and why the film earns its pitch black comedy status, but there’s a lot more going on narratively than severed fingers.

As Colm triples down, Padriac becomes defiant and despondent and all the town’s men have an opinion on the rift, Sioboan, a richly written character played with conviction by Condon, shouts, “You’re all boring!” Up to this point the mano-a-mano has been front and center, but now the parallel story, of a woman longing to start life over away from a dead end collection of dull, drunk male egos, flowers with full conviction. Part of this story means Siobahn will also break the heart of a slow-witted innocent (Barry Keoghan, excellent), the object of vicious violence by his father, the raging local cop (Garry Lydon).

At one point, a character asks Padriac if he ever feels lonely, the mere suggestion of which he laughs off. But on Inisherin loneliness may be all there is, and certainly few options for friendship or personal fulfillment. While the war, which pitted families and neighbors against each other, rages nearby the same happens on the tiny island, writ small. The price of community comfort is high and often dreary; in fact there are few if any conveniences, the island itself stuck a century in the past, its primitive institutions controlled by brutish men (a bartender, a cop, a priest, a recalcitrant fiddler) and its social fabric—a stifling, clannish grip of gossip and superstition—navigated by its women (an ancient, advice dispensing crone and nosy general store worker).

Facing the days alone, a huge sadness comes down on Padriac in the picture’s second half, and a superbly written monologue extolling the virtues of kindness may be Farrell’s finest moment onscreen in nearly three decades of pictures. The consummate actor, who has always traveled between big studio pictures and tiny indies, brings the full weight of his latter career contemplation, patience and sensitivity (none of these qualities were required as Hollywood put him through a gauntlet of leading man action pictures circa late 90s and early 2000s), piqued with superb comic line readings and palpable pathos, to what may be the male performance of the year.

As an actor, Farrell has never been afraid to be intensely vulnerable, evidenced in his exciting turn in a film no one saw, 2004’s A Home at the End of the World and on display across his estimable career, even in wildly big swings like Oliver Stone’s maligned epic Alexander or early genre pieces like Phone Booth. Banshees marks his third picture this year, following his unrecognizable immersion as Gotham City’s villain The Penguin in The Batman and as a father longing to repair a faithful family robot confidant in the poignant indie After Yang. This one-two-three punch is stronger than any other actor’s onscreen contributions this year.

Pairing Farrell and Gleeson together again after their In Bruges collaboration (which won Farrell a Golden Globe) was a McDonagh masterstroke, their rich chemistry and fraternal authenticity—whipsmart timing, obvious admiration and trust in going out on tonal limbs together in both films is clearly liberating—raises the stakes of McDonagh’s already original and insightful work. The writer-director’s screenplay, a miracle of dryly comic cultural colloquialism is, on its face, great fun to listen to:

Are you rowing?

I didn’t think we were rowing.

Well you are rowing. He’s sitting outside on his own like a whatchamacallit.

It does look like we’re rowing. I suppose I’d best go talk to him. See what this is all fecking about.

That would be the best thing.

While such exchanges may get chuckles, The Banshees of Inisherin also speaks eloquently to the underrated value of simply being a good person and the passionate defense of simplicity. McDonagh’s impressions on the reconciliation of how we see ourselves versus how others see us, the yearning for creativity and self-actualization through art (here music and literature) and finding the clarity and presence of mind to move on from relationships and milieus that no longer serve us fascinate even if his flawed characters are unable to fully realize such aspirations. By the time the story unspools, a surprise death and reversal of control force a point of no return. How each character understands who is finally holding these cards, and why, makes for one of the best movie endings in ages, and perhaps one of the most sobering.

Special mention goes to Padriac’s beloved Jenny the donkey and Colm’s faithful collie, reminding us of the unlikely places love can be found—perhaps animals, in fact, may be better partners and more deserving of our kindnesses when humans brutishly thwart our hopes and good graces. But even they may not be protected from the consequences of casual human savagery.

The Banshees of Inisherin is the year’s finest piece of storytelling.

4 stars

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