Martin McDonagh delivers a perfect take on male friendship in his latest tragi-comic tale, The Banshees of Inisherin. Following his Oscar-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018), the writer-director reunites with his In Bruges (2008) powerhouse duo Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell for a story that will have all three men vying for Academy Awards. Their chemistry and sheer dynamism on screen make Farrell and Gleeson’s performances not just the best of the year, but perhaps, the best of their lengthy careers.
Set in 1923 on the fictional island of Inisherin, the Irish Civil War rages on across the water, the faint sounds which can be heard on this weathered bit of land. Every afternoon, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) stops at his best friend Colm’s (Brendan Gleeson) to collect him on the way to the island’s only pub. An unlikely duo, one who deems himself a musician and intellectual, the other a simple chatty soul who can talk about his little donkey for hours, this long-time friendship has worked – until now.
It is later that day that Colm delivers the crushing blow to Pádraic – he just doesn’t like him anymore. Confused, Pádraic presses the increasingly exasperated Colm for a reason why their friendship must come to an end as the older man simply muses in the face of increasing despair that life is too short for idle chatter about donkey shite and he must now focus on making music. The townsfolk’s and our own sympathies lie with the soft-hearted and kind-eyed Pádraic until Colm, fed up with earnest his pleading for friendship, threatens to cut off each one of his fingers every time the farmer speaks to him.
Visually appealing with wind-swept charm by cinematographer Ben Davis and production designer Mark Tildesley, it is not difficult to imagine this tale of friendship’s end being shared over pints in a cozy pub as it becomes the stuff of Irish folklore.
Using the metaphor of the Irish Civil War without getting too heavy-handed, McDonagh doesn’t vie too far from the main dissolution of friendship storyline, and Banshees is all the better for it. Focusing on the feud between the men allows this steadily-paced story to gloriously unfold on screen. There is never a dull moment in the film as even the most luxuriously paced scenes are compellingly poetic. In true Irish fashion, Banshees is a melancholic story, not without real moments of laugh-out-loud humour.
With his background as a playwright, McDonagh’s stage sensibility comes through each character as Gleeson and Farrell are supported by the equally wonderful Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan who each add what is perhaps the film’s bleakest subplots. As Pádraic’s sweet sister Siobhan, Condon is isolated and lonely on an island full of spinsters and men. But her dedication and love for her brother keeps her chained to routine, worrying that without her, Pádraic wouldn’t survive. Keoghan, who plays the village idiot Dominic, is a kind-hearted and well-meaning soul whose character arc will draw both deep empathy and a few well-timed laughs from viewers.
Of course, the real draw here is Farrell and Gleeson who, together again 14 years after In Bruges, make for one mesmerizing team. Their friendship and affection for one another off-screen is evident as they breathe life into these lived-in characters. Both “eejits”, their odd-couple feud rages on to the point it has lost all meaning and serves to only make their lives and their island worse for them. With Farrell’s doe-eyed innocence and Gleeson’s steely-eyed stare, there is much exchanged between the two without a word being said as McDonagh lets his actors’ performances breathe. By the time he returns to them to deliver a line, it’s all the more effective.
Debuting at the Venice Film Festival, the film received a 13-minute standing ovation and saw Farrell crowned Best Actor alongside McDonagh for Best Screenplay. There will be no doubt that The Banshees of Inisherin will top many year-end critics lists and become a major player during awards season. It is simply not to be missed and is one of the best films of 2022.