Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
The premise of the new film “The Banshees of Inisherin” is dead simple. The story concerns the unexpected dissolution of a long-term friendship and the unfolding aftermath for the two men at its center. One day, kindly Irish farmer Pádraic is caught off guard when his long-time drinking buddy and closest friend Colm unceremoniously declares that he doesn’t care to carry on the friendship any longer.
To some, that may feel like precious little to build a movie around. Fortunately, the story’s interest extends beyond the social relationships between the men; with Pádraic and Colm the catalyst, it also seeks to examine our relationships with place, community, and most importantly, ourselves.
No Man is an Island
In the early going, “The Banshees of Inisherin” treats its central conflict with bemusement more than anything. It gently pokes at Colm’s motivations to cut ties, both Pádraic and the viewer alike wondering why, desperately wanting to know a cause, a fault, a reason, some explanation for this sudden change in affairs.
The question is not pursued without humor. There are genuinely funny moments here, even against a backdrop of apparent anguish and struggle. But the stakes and seriousness of the situation continue to rise throughout the film, a violent intensity emerging by the time the credits roll.
There is a dark edge to this story that is not surprising for writer-director Martin McDonagh. There are moments in “Banshees” that recall some of the pitch-black humor of McDonagh’s previous film, the academy-award-winning “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” — such as one memorable scene there that had Frances McDormand’s protagonist dispensing a dose of cathartic carnage upon a small-town dental worker.
Whatever your tolerance for these grisly flourishes — dramatic choices that carry no shortage of shock value — “Banshees” is at its best in the gray areas. The film shouldn’t be judged on its ability to provide a conclusive answer to the core question of why Colm turned away from Pádraic. As with many things in life, there are no easy answers — or easily articulated ones anyway.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” is an openly existential film. As such, McDonagh’s sole concern is not how Pádraic can make peace with Colm; he’s as concerned, if not more so, with Colm’s search to make peace with himself. This deeper search for meaning is given added dimension through the film’s secondary characters, including a local pastor and Pádraic’s sister Siobhán. Conversations involving these characters animate explorations of what we owe to ourselves, what we owe to the people around us, and what exactly makes for a meaningful life when all is said and done.
Depending on your sensibilities, you may find the ultimate course McDonagh sets for this narrative more profane than profound, but there are still numerous sequences throughout that manage to resonate and linger in the memory. That’s in large part thanks to how the central performances — from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Kerry Condon, in particular — sell the impression of complex, long-held relationships.
An Island Never Cries
Another relationship that can’t be overlooked in an accounting of “The Banshees of Inisherin” is the one the characters have with the island in the title. Much like Ebbing, Missouri before it, McDonagh’s Inisherin is a fictional creation, but the film was shot in the real-world locations of Inishmore and Achill Island.
Both are small islands off Ireland’s western coast, with populations of about 750 and 2,500 respectively. No surprise, the villages are quaint, and the landscapes are beautiful; by contrast however, McDonagh presents Inisherin as a pretty stifling place to most of his characters. They are trapped in mundane routines, with limited prospects social or professional. Their neighbors are good-humored, but also nosy gossips prone to occasional bouts of backwardness. Worries about isolation and loneliness are ever present.
There is no doubt that McDonagh uses the geography as fuel for his character’s suffering. Ebbing, Missouri was a tinderbox of dysfunction and rage just waiting to catch fire, each of the small-town character’s faults or quirks setting the sparks, whether with or without knowledge or intention. Inisherin has a similar quality, but on a smaller, quieter scale, the rage substituted for something more like depression and despair.
Gray clouds hang over the island for much of the film. Majestic cliffs and coastlines loom not as places of wonder, but as hazards, a possible source of further harm to come. The film even begs the question, why not leave the pall of this place, and flee elsewhere? The question is batted away, but not with much consideration or an especially well-justified argument.
McDonagh came under some criticism for “Three Billboards,” with detractors questioning the facility of a Londoner and Irishman to make judgments concerning the social psychology of middle America. Upon reflection, I’m inclined to remember the film as something like an imitation of a Coen brothers’ production, minus much of the standing and self-awareness. McDonagh is working closer to home here, cutting against a similar charge of overreach. Still, these comparisons may prove instructive in determining how you might react to the film.
It’s a thoughtful, affecting story, with recognizable dilemmas at its core. But the dark, tragic edge that characterizes McDonagh’s recent work might leave you seeking a silver lining, or at least a more restrained, nuanced take on the trials of existence, small-town or otherwise.
The Banshees of Inisherin is currently playing in theaters.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.