The mordantly comedic assault on the politics of revenge used to be the province of English/Irish playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh. In more recent years, the writer/director has turned his probing eye towards compassion, forgiveness, and redemption and the unanswerable question of whether his problematic protagonists are worthy of any such goodwill. The challenge made on the spectator and the moral ambiguity continues in his latest, “The Banshee Of Inisherin,” a stark, moody, quieter, hilariously dark tragicomedy that offers no easy answers or resolutions of any kind.
Set on a fictional archipelago island with wars and Irish myths haunting the edges of the frame, it’s a caustic dark fairytale, fitting for our toxic and troubled times. And fecking hell, there’s a lot to unpack in it. Deeply layered and considered, the tale considers the individual costs and sacrifices of personal space, artistry, ambition, conflict, and the fallout of two tribes going to war. It’s also certainly McDonagh’s cinematic magnum opus so far, his best since “In Bruges,” if not better, and surely more complex and morally mysterious.
The story takes place in 1923, on the rural coast of Ireland, in a fictional town as the Irish Civil War rages on the fringes of its borders. The war rumbles contentiously on in the background, always there, but rarely acknowledged; the pop and reply of scattered gunshots and artillery canons boom portentously, not unlike the forewarnings of the old woman in the narrative who vexes the locals with her prophecies of people’s doom.
Meanwhile, on the island of Inisherin—distant enough from the mainland where one doesn’t need to concern themselves with former brothers now slaughtering each other—a longstanding friendship is about to implode. Each day at two o’clock, the happy-go-lucky simpleton Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell, an outstanding performance that plays comedy and heartbreak to pitch-perfect intonation) meets his best mate Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson, equally brilliant) for a pint of the ol’ black at the local pub.
But on this ill-fated afternoon, Colm is nowhere to be found. “Didn’t you and he used to be best friends?” the local witch-like Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton) asks ominously at the pub. Pádraic insists they still are. But when he tracks his pal back to his house, later on, confused as to why he’s missed their daily bevy hour, Colm asks him to leave, inexplicably, offering no explanation for his sudden disinterest in Pádraic’s company.
Did they row unbeknownst to the simple Pádraic? Did the garrulous fool offend his older, more unruffled friend while drunk? Hurt, confused, and offended, Pádraic doesn’t understand, and wants answers, but is quick to try and reassure himself that it’s a misunderstanding while continuing to worry. Trying to find comfort in the insights of his wiser older sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon), he coaxes her to force Colm into explaining what’s suddenly gone sour. The short of it is Colm experienced something of a quiet revelation and reached a crossroads in life. He elects to dedicate himself to the musical artistry of his fiddle and decides that unworldly and guileless Pádraic is a nincompoop dullard who is distracting him from this higher calling.
Much to Colm’s eventual vexation, Pádraic won’t take no for an answer, won’t listen, and tries to disregard his wishes, attempting to either whine his way back into the friendship or assume it’ll all blow over. But Colm is steadfast in his conviction of divorcing his friend. So, he issues his former pal a drastic ultimatum: stop speaking to him forever. And any time Pádraic refuses to heed Colm’s warning, he will cut off one of his own fingers and will continue severing all the digits if he has to in order to find the peace, and the Pádraic-free quiet he craves.
This radical stipulation shocks Pádraic, Siobhán, the local village idiot Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan)—who Pádraic briefly befriends in the interim as a stop-gap chum—and the entire town. But Pádraic’s resolve is unbowed, and as he endeavors to repair the relationship, the narrative grows dark and escalates beyond the measure of imagination.
Rich, layered, and full of beautiful shapeshifting emotional depth—at times laugh-out-loud funny, and then stopping on a dime to turn melancholy, heartrending, and or horrifying—“The Banshee of Insherin” will surely unsettle audiences trying to pinpoint blame or ascribe a hero or villain to the piece. Its morality and personal sympathies are purposefully opaque. Poor Pádraic, his pathetic snotty tears, his big heart, and earnestness is seemingly the easy target of sympathy (Farrell is so amazing in these moments), but as his thoughtless actions intensify and he makes matters much worse, one can’t help but empathize with the older man, seemingly entering the winter years of his life, who is just begging for the tranquility of being unbothered.
It’s also wrenching, the absurd hilarity of McDonagh’s lacerating script, suddenly pulled out from under you when the film reminds the viewer how painful this breakup is to everyone involved. This is where McDonagh’s growing tendency towards empathy blooms further, perhaps the only solution we have. As pitch-black, acerbic, and absurd as McDonagh’s writing can be, ‘Insherin’ flows with deep inlets of tenderness and empathy. Great humanity courses throughout the film, which gives it yet another level of emotional intelligence and profundity (to that end, Carter Burwell’s magnificent score will break your heart).
Religion can’t help but play a part in its sneaky morality as well. What’s the business about breaking up your friendship, a priest asks during Colm’s confession. Well, is it a sin? he asks. It’s not, but it’s not very nice, kind, and compassionate now, is it?
Echoing back to his Irish playwright roots and his unfinished Aran Islands trilogy (Raised in England, McDonagh was born to Irish parents and set all his early works in Ireland)—loosely connected by their isle setting, close-knit communities, and corrosive humor and violence—‘Inisherin’ is certainly more theatrical, stripped-down and stage-y compared to his more recent genre riffs.
And yet, it’s also more cinematic and visually ravishing, McDonagh and cinematographer Ben Davis seemingly contrasting the dank, grey Irish indoors by capturing the lush, sweeping, and gorgeous vistas of majestic Irish islets. ‘Inisherin’ seems hellbent on carrying all these narrative and cinematic contradictions. Spare, minimalist, sometimes distant, and enigmatic, ‘Inisherin’ resembles a European art film, perhaps a mix of his filmmaking brother John McDonagh’s more Bresson-ian “Calvary” (there are a lot of meek donkeys in this one, too), the aforementioned Coen’s ‘Serious Man’ period, and a filmed McDonagh play.
Dubbed a breakup film, it’s unclear if McDonagh is playing coy or refuses to engage with the social-political echoes the film subtly, but constantly throws off like so many bombs going off in the distance. When your favorite couple divorces for seemingly inexplicable, unfathomable reasons, whose side do you pick? Which team are you on? Which tribe will you fight for? Or are these the wrong questions for a time when compassion and understanding seem to be in short supply? Without ever underlining it, and faintly so at best, “The Banshee of Inisherin” seems to be a mad meditation on the topsy-turvy nature of our unpredictable world, our unreasonable times, how civility has expired, and how there are no winners in war. Nihilistic, gleeful, and sad, McDonagh manages to prop up all these confounding paradoxes, emotional, narrative, cinematic, or otherwise, into a big majestic soulful symphony on the sad, tragic futility of conflict and the perplexing, irrationality of human nature when it’s become stuck in its most stubborn gear. Where does insisting we’re in the moral right get us? In McDonagh’s dark fantasy, we’re left with a bloody stump, a home ablaze, and total calamity. [A-]