Whenever Martin McDonagh makes a film, attention must be paid. He’s a master of dark comedy, with whip-smart dialogue and devilish plotting, unafraid to tackle challenging subjects in clever and subversive ways.
But The Banshees of Inisherin had me stumped upon first impression. The trailer didn’t really have much to offer aside from repeating over and over that our two main characters (played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) used to be friends, and now they’re at each others’ throats for some unknown reason. I’ve already seen that movie — it was called In Bruges. Except this trailer didn’t show an ounce of the intricate plotting or comedic genius of McDonagh’s earlier opus.
So how about it, Martin? What else do you have to offer for this go-round? Let’s find out.
We lay our scene in 1923, on the small fictional island of Inisherin off the coast of Ireland. Colin Farrell plays Padraic, a local cattle farmer; while Brendan Gleeson plays a fiddler named Colm. The two of them have been lifelong best friends until Colm suddenly decides that he doesn’t want to be friends with Padraic anymore. It’s not because of anything Padraic said or did, Colm simply woke up one day and decided that life is too short to be around someone as dull as Padraic.
That’s it. That’s the entire premise. Luckily, McDonagh is a talented enough storyteller to make such a mundane premise into a compelling film. How does he do it?
To start with, there’s the fact that Inisherin is a tiny little island. Which means that no matter how badly Colm may want to be left alone, he and Padraic will have to cross paths eventually. Moreover, we’re talking about a small rural village populated entirely by hick simpletons with nothing better to do than stick their noses in each others’ business. In this context, even the most petty of feuds will get quickly and comically overblown into a tempest in a teakettle.
Oh, and did I mention that this takes place in Ireland? Because yeah, that should be taken as a sign that drunken fights and brawls are another huge reason why all this gets blown out of proportion.
Which brings me to another crucial factor: The egos involved. Padraic naturally takes umbrage at the notion that he’s a dullard to the point where somebody wants nothing to do with him. So of course he’s incapable of dropping this and perpetually insists on picking at the wound in spite of all common sense and good manners. As for Colm, he’s getting on in years and decides that he wants to spend his remaining time alone and composing music. He reasons that nobody cares whether Mozart or Picasso were nice people, it’s only their art that endures. Never mind that Colm is a mediocre musician at best, and it’s not entirely clear what excitement or popularity he can hope to find so long as he stays on godforsaken Inisherin.
But what really escalates this whole pitiful squabble into something worthy of a feature film is the exaggerated lengths that both men will go to. At the end of the first act, Colm finally threatens that every time Padraic continues to bother him, Colm will cut off one of his own fingers and send it to Padraic. No, Colm is not threatening to mutilate the other guy, he’s threatening to mutilate himself. And as Colm is a violinist with delusions/aspirations of being a composer, he is literally threatening to cut off his own livelihood if Padraic won’t leave him alone.
If you think that Colm is bluffing, or that this will be enough to keep Padraic away, you’ve never seen a Martin McDonagh picture.
All of this might sound like a bunch of random, violent, delusional, self-important madness. And it is. That’s exactly the point. And we know it’s the point because the filmmakers take great pains at drawing our attention to the Irish Civil War unfolding just a few miles away on the Irish mainland.
That’s right, folks — we’ve got us an anti-war allegory.
From this perspective, the whole farcical plot takes on so many new meanings. The trivial and arbitrary nature of the conflict, how the characters are willing to injure themselves and each other just to make a point, the refugees and collateral damage that keep piling up as the plot unfolds… it all fits. It doesn’t just fit, but it reduces the whole concept of war to where we can see how pointless and nonsensical it really is.
The whole thing is so comical yet so tragic, so intimate and personal, such an intelligently told story about such hopelessly brain-dead characters, that it makes for a brilliant work of satire about the Irish Civil War in particular and the whole concept of war in general. In point of fact, the ending is so noncommittal and inconsequential that less astute moviegoers might easily miss the point that it’s all part of the anti-war message. Hell, the whole movie is so aggressively drenched in McDonagh’s signature pitch-black comedy, the whole satire angle might be easy to miss right up until the end.
Of course this movie belongs to Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, both of whom are seasoned industry veterans well-practiced at working together and working under McDonagh. They carry the film admirably, but there are some treasures in the supporting cast who shouldn’t be overlooked. Barry Keoghan deserves credit as a horny dumb comic relief character, and Gary Lydon admirably plays his father as a corrupt hate sink. And I’d be remiss not to mention Brid Ni Neachtain as the local grocer, such a detestably nosy busybody that she actively sabotages her own business and alienates her own customers just to make sure she knows everything about everyone.
But the real MVP of the supporting cast is Kerry Condon, here playing Padraic’s sister. Siobhan plays a crucial role as the voice of reason, the only one sensible enough to call out Padraic and Colm on their shit. Indeed, Siobhan has more than enough tough love for every stupid self-righteous hick on the whole godforsaken island.
The Banshees of Inisherin is proof that there are no bad stories, only bad storytellers. This is a movie that would’ve completely fallen apart with anyone else in the cast and crew. Only a filmmaker of McDonagh’s caliber could’ve taken such an insipid premise and spun it into a compelling anti-war film. Indeed, only a master satirist could’ve realized that such an insipid premise was the perfect means for making a potent anti-war statement.
McDonagh’s profane and bloody sense of humor won’t be for all tastes, and there’s an argument to be made that the film is padded even at 110 minutes. Even so, this is definitely a movie to check out.