Whats OnFilmsFilm Review: The Banshees of Inisherin, by Martin McDonagh

Film Review: The Banshees of Inisherin, by Martin McDonagh

By Phedias Christodoulides

(spoilers ahead)

“I JUST DON’T like ya no more.” This line, uttered very early in the film by Brendan Gleeson to Colin Farrell, sets the stage for probably the strangest and most original film of the year.

Gleeson plays Colm, an ageing fiddle player living on a remote and desolate fictional island of Inisherin, off the coast of Ireland, whose best friend is the simple-minded Pádraic (Farrell). The story is set in 1923, near the end of the Irish Civil War which goes on in the mainland. The film begins with Pádraic making what is revealed to be his everyday 2 p.m. visit to Colm’s seaside house, planning to pick him up and go get a pint from the island’s sole pub as they usually do. Strangely, Colm ignores him. He later shows up at the pub but declines to sit next to Pádraic, and the next day he tells him in no uncertain terms that he simply doesn’t like him anymore. This is not due to something Pádraic did, Colm explains to the non-understanding Pádraic; he simply finds Pádraic “dull”, as he puts it. Pádraic is indeed simple-minded and Colm finds their repetitive small talk uninteresting and “aimless”. He wants instead to focus on his music in the hope that he produces something that will outlast him, much like Mozart et al. before him. But Pádraic cannot accept losing his best and only friend and continues pestering him, insisting in his simple-minded fashion that his talking is “good, normal talking”.

Quite a strange setup, right? It only gets curiouser and curiouser from here, as old Alice would say. Very soon we enter the realm of absurdist theatre, McDonagh’s speciality, as Colm claims that if Pádraic won’t leave him alone, he will start chopping one of his own fingers each time Pádraic talks to him. Pádraic reasonably assumes his former friend is bluffing, but Colm does not: following yet another of Pádraic’s attempt at reconciliation, he cuts and throws his finger against Pádraic’s front door. The situation only escalates from there, with more fingers getting chopped, Pádraic’s beloved donkey choking on one of the fingers, and Pádraic setting Colm’s house on fire in return.

Now, I’m not sure why this escalation on the part of Colm is necessary, as he deprives himself of his ability to play music, which was the reason he wanted to stop talking to Pádraic in the first place. I’m not sure whether this is sensationalism on McDonagh’s part or not – this is his schtick from what I gather after all – but it is puzzling to me. Colm is revealed to be suffering from depression, but does that explain the lengths to which he goes to end all contact with Pádraic? To complicate things further, at times he appears to still genuinely care for his former friend, helping him up after a beating from the island’s sole horrid police officer. In any case, Gleeson plays Colm as the definition of world-weary, a magnificent performance that deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor nomination. He probably does not even need to try that hard; scowling seems second nature to his wrinkled face, just like in Gangs of New York 20 years earlier.

Farrell is another story. While Gleeson has pretty much the same imposing and world-weary presence throughout, Farrell undergoes an impressive development in the course of the film. Initially, he is a naïve, agreeable person with nothing troubling him, going about his daily routine of small-scale farming, getting along with everyone and being especially fond of his little donkey Jenny. Like simple-minded people are usually portrayed and contra Colm, he appears to have never experienced sadness, boredom or emptiness in his life, despite how limited and repetitive it is. He is the definition of blissful ignorance and contentment. This gradually changes upon what he experiences as Colm’s betrayal of their friendship. He passes through various stages of incomprehension and is gradually forced, apparently for the first time in his life, to reflect about himself and his possible shortcomings as a person and a friend. He conveys neediness, sadness and eventually anger towards Colm as he experiences loneliness and loss for the first time in his life. He is amusing yet increasingly dejected throughout the film, expressing a range of emotions that I never saw from him previously. If not for Brendan Fraser, he would be my pick for Best Actor.

The supporting characters are also memorable in their respective roles. The most substantial of those are Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and the village’s fool Dominic (Barry Keoghan). Siobhán, in contrast to her brother, is the most intelligent person on the island, and finally the strongest and most mature one, finding the strength to escape the monotonous life on the island to work as a librarian in the mainland. She is a more rational and understanding version of Colm, able to both do something with her life (reading) and still finding the time to tend to her brother, inviting him to come live with her in the mainland. Keoghan for his part tones down the creepiness that seems second nature to him and brings a sweetness and vulnerability in his role as Dominic. His awkward and hopeless romantic confession to Siobhán is absolutely endearing and makes us feel for all the people on earth who for no fault of their own are doomed to loneliness, be it because they are perceived as stupid or ugly. He is abused physically and apparently sexually by his cruel policeman father (Gary Lydon), the one revolting character in the film.

The rest of the film’s characters are caricatures, but delightful ones. Apart from Lydon’s policeman, we have an extremely nosy shopkeeper (Brid Ní Neachtain), an uncanny old lady called Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton) who roams the island like an actual banshee and prophesizes impending death, and especially David Pearse as the funniest priest I ever saw in film. Because the island is sparsely populated, all these people gossip and get involved in each other’s affairs, including trying to make sense of and bring an end to the escalating feud of the two leads. McDonagh took great care to get the period details right, showing us the technological and cultural backwardness of this rural backwater.

Ben Davis’ camerawork captures the untamed beauty of the place while McDonagh takes care to get the period details right – this is a primitive world where electricity hasn’t yet arrived and communication is via letters that can take weeks to reach their destination. Life is basic in the small village where everyone knows not only everyone else’s name but their business as well. Purpose #1 in life is tending to the farms and animals that provide sustenance. Leisure time encompasses playing music, reading books, and sitting in the town’s lone pub, idly chatting over a pint or two. McDonagh brings Inisherin to life so forcefully that the place almost overwhelms those living in it.

The film is indeed very funny in its first half and got me and the rest of the audience laughing out loud many times. The humour comes from the verbal sparring of its dialogue, which uses regional dialect and the peculiarities of people’s linguistic expression for laughs. The same phrases are repeated by different people at different points in the film (e.g., “dull”, “nice”, “feck”) and the back-and-forth never gets boring. Equally funny are some characters’ facial quirks, particularly the priest’s during Colm’s confessions. The first one is the funniest scene of the year, a shot-reverse shot of Colm and the priest in close-up as they end up in a shouting contest of expletives regarding “impure thoughts towards men”. In a confession much later in the film, we have the immortal and absolutely true line, by Colm, that “if punching a policeman is a sin, we may as well pack up, and go home”.

As the film goes on and the feud between Colm and Pádraic, however, it takes a decidedly darker tone, more fitting with its title. (For those who do not know, a banshee is a female spirit in Irish folklore who warns of death.) A melancholy atmosphere is already there from the beginning of the film, as the sparsely-populated island looks rather desolate, reminding me of Wenders’ The Scarlet Letter, a film with a similar setting. Families and children seem to be lacking, enhancing the loneliness hanging over the place. The camera often uses long shots in which the characters and their houses seem small and overwhelmed by the large empty fields and imposing cliffs. Siobhán accurately describes the island as consisting of “nothing but bleakness and the slow passing of time”. The appearance of Mrs McCormick at random moments even suggests a non-realist, or magical realist, mood.

Still, the conflict between the two main characters is human, all too human, and ultimately tragic despite the whimsy. Both characters appear to have good reasons for their behaviour. As Colm says to the priest, he does not have to be friends with Pádraic and he is right; you do not have to stay friends with someone forever if you stop enjoying their company. Moreover, I fully understand his desire to leave something lasting behind as he feels his impending death inching closer, as I feel the same too. He feels he is wasting his life away and wants to change that. On the other hand, we also feel for Pádraic as it is extremely painful to lose your best friend (a topic also explored in Lukas Dhont’s Close). Colm’s decision is understandable but harsh. As Marx put it in an entirely different context: “between equal rights force decides”, and this is what we see play out in the film.

Ultimately, as one reviewer put it, I believe The Banshees of Inisherin works best as a competition of contrasting worldviews: “happy complacency versus informed dread, the value of kindness versus the virtue of creation, enjoying the moment versus leaving a mark”. Both worldviews have their merits, and the film wisely takes no side and avoids didacticism, leaving it up to us to decide what matters most for us.

It is also a critical study in male pride and the extremes it may lead us to, including even a perfectly nice and innocent guy like Pádraic. What the film isn’t is an allegory for the Irish civil war raging in the background. The film at the end seems to suggest such a link, but I believe said link is unnecessary and simplistic: the Irish civil war is a far more complicated affair resting on different issues than the feud between Colm and Pádraic, and its politics are absent from the film.

All in all, Banshees does not quite achieve greatness, but it has a number of great, well-realized elements and its offbeat topic is refreshing amidst the sea of nihilism and moralistic blandness currently on offer. It is by far the worthiest of the nominees for Best Original Screenplay and I hope it wins.

The Banshees of Inisherin is playing at Pantheon Theatre, K-Cineplex and Rio Cinemas.

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