Martin McDonagh | 1hr 54min
“There are no banshees in Inisherin,” Pádraic tells his ex-drinking buddy, Colm, a few weeks into their widening rift. This rural island is too quiet for any wailing hags, though even without loudly announcing her presence, their elderly, nosey neighbour Mrs McCormick virtually serves the same purpose, mysteriously prowling around town and dealing out ominous warnings. “I just don’t think they scream to portend death anymore,” Colm wryly surmises. “I think they just sit back quietly, amused, and observe.”
That’s about all there is to do in a village as beautifully monotonous as this. The day that Colm tells Pádraic that he doesn’t want to be his friend anymore may be the first time in years that anything vaguely interesting has happened here, and it is telling that almost everyone has the exact same response to this piece of the gossip.
“Have you been rowin’?”
“I don’t think we’ve been rowin’.”
Martin McDonagh has always had a knack for bringing to life the idiosyncratic details of his film settings, from the Belgian city of Bruges to the Missourian town of Ebbing, though his fictional creation of Inisherin is uniquely detailed in its formal construction. The name itself sounds like an Irish, drunken mumble, pieced together by syllables one barely needs to open their mouth to pronounce. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson’s deadpan Irishmen are just as unremarkable as their neighbours, each of whom McDonagh defines with amusingly familiar traits. The naïve barman, the short-tempered police officer, and the gossip-prone priest stand among them, while Barry Keoghan takes on the supporting role of Dominic, a troubled boy with an awkward crush on Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán. In effect, Inisherin is distinguished as an insulated bubble unconcerned with anything outside its borders. Being surrounded by people like these, it isn’t hard to see why Colm’s personal ambitions have started to outgrow his station in life.
So too does McDonagh have grander things on his mind in his telling of Colm and Pádraic’s petty conflict. It is a tale older than the Bible, calling back to the hostility between brothers Cain and Abel, and it is also reflected in the broader political context of the film’s setting during the Irish Civil War of the 1920s – something McDonagh is sure to keep reminding us of with the intermittent explosions across the channel. Just a few years prior, those men who are now killing each other were fighting side-by-side in the Irish War of Independence, united against a common enemy. Now, they are turning minor grievances into major affronts, which from history we know had long-lasting impacts on future generations, dividing Ireland through the Troubles and into the present day.
Not that the inhabitants of Inisherin show much interest in any of this. At one point they mention an execution going on somewhere that vaguely captures their attention, but which side is on which end of it holds little importance. Upon their tiny isle, just beyond the reach of the fighting, the battle between Colm and Pádraic is far more fascinating, especially when Gleeson’s cantankerous fiddle player begins threatening to cut off his own fingers each time his ex-friend bothers him. Whether it is through Mrs McCormick’s prophecies or Colm’s ultimatums, violence in The Banshees of Inisherin never comes without warning, letting McDonagh settle a thick air of dread over the isle, anxiously anticipating each casualty of this bitter feud.
It is easy enough for those looking in from the outside to see how unnecessary this brutality is, though this is not even the most darkly ironic part of McDonagh’s screenplay. In opposition to Colm’s longing for greatness, Pádraic takes the side of kindness, arguing that it holds more value than any grand cultural legacy one might leave behind. Through their respective retaliations though, both ultimately deny themselves the high ground. Without his index finger, Colm’s fiddle playing sounds scratchy and crude, and McDonagh casts the shadow of his mutilated hand up on his bedroom wall in the moonlight like a haunting reminder of his ineptitude. On the other side of the division, Pádraic’s patience gradually wears thin, pushing him to the brink of his niceness until it is left as fragmented as the mirror he punches out of anger.
With such a mature visual style navigating The Banshees of Inisherin’s bitter conflict, this may very well be the first time McDonagh has paired his dryly tragicomic writing with cinematography that approaches the same level of excellence. The green Irish coastline and rocky hills become a rich backdrop to the drama in stunning establishing shots, positioning Colm’s cottage above an ocean view as if subtly luring him away from the ennui of Inisherin. Meanwhile, the roads to Pádraic’s house are lined with dry stone walls that draw partitions in the scenery, hemming him into the life he has always known.
This distinction continues to be repeated in the divisions of McDonagh’s staging as well, often framing Farrell outside windows while Gleeson sits quietly in the foreground, refusing to make eye contact. The two separate occasions where Pádraic simply peers inside to check on his friend with no further interaction makes for a particularly nice formal touch here, offering a light, sympathetic connection that can never quite bridge the gap between them.
Even at Colm and Pádraic’s lowest moments, this tender affection continues to arise, bringing layers of poignancy to McDonagh’s Irish fable of broken brotherhood and war. On several occasions, it very nearly convinces us that there may be some sort of resolution to their conflict as well – if not for the better, then at least with a cynical finality. After all, it was specifically two deaths that Mrs McCormick foreshadowed, so it would be fair to assume that those on the frontlines would be the ones who suffer most.
But the work that McDonagh does building out the larger community beyond this battle proves to be important here, as although many might not take sides or even accept that the quarrel has anything to do with them, its reverberations are felt as a stifled, prolonged sorrow. “Some things there’s no moving on from, and I think that’s a good thing,” Colm accepts, and though his and Pádraic’s eyes are finally both set on the horizon beyond Inisherin, the lonely, rocky isle has never felt more like a prison, built from the self-destructive labours of their own contempt.
The Banshees of Inisherin is currently playing in theatres.
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