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The masterpiece Banshees of Inisherin has a crucial 20-year backstory

Martin McDonagh went from his worst film to his best by growing out of his early impulses

Pádraic (Colin Farrell) tries to speak to his former friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) while both men are standing in a rutted lane by a donkey cart, surrounded by low stone fences, in The Banshees of Inisherin Photo: Jonathan Hession/Searchlight Pictures
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

At the beginning of his career, way back in 1994, Martin McDonagh wrote seven plays in 10 months. Before he was known for movies like In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh created plays so swiftly and at such a high caliber, theaters in London and New York City needed a decade to stage the collection on both sides of the Atlantic. His latest creation, a coda of sorts to those original seven plays, has been in the works, off and on, ever since. The film The Banshees of Inisherin, which began conception in this same window of the early ’00s, took roughly 20 years for McDonagh to complete. And he needed every one of those years.

Banshees is a career-defining work, though not in the sense critics often use, as a synonym for “masterpiece.” It is, in the most literal sense, McDonagh actually defining his career. With a simple plot that borders on allegory — a man abruptly rejects an old friend, and commits to that decision with a horrific certainty — Banshees questions its writer’s dedication to art, interrogates the takeaways from his recent films, and concludes one of the longest and most puzzling projects by an active storyteller.

Banshees is also — and this is important — a really fucking entertaining movie.

This is the magic of McDonagh at his best. He’s smart though plain-spoken, wry but puerile, fixated on provocative violence and suspicious of its usefulness, both in the real world and in those of his stories. Those gifts gradually dissipated after those early days as a playwright, collapsing entirely in Banshees predecessor, his creative nadir, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And yet, here stands Banshees as one of the best films of 2022, and maybe one of the best films of the past 10 years.

Ahead of awards season and the inevitable conversations about McDonagh’s return to form — or worse, a misguided framing of Banshees as some sort of spiritual follow-up to Three Billboards — we should take a beat to unravel how the hell McDonagh pulled this off. How does a writer follow his worst story with his best? And why did it take a legendarily prolific artist two decades to finish The Banshees of Inisherin?

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin. Image: Searchlight Pictures

From plays to Three Billboards

In 2006, my wife and I trudged through a New York City blizzard to see an off-Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s play The Lieutenant of Inishmore. We’d received a text from the box-office manager noting that even though the subway was shut down across most lines, the play’s cast — including a then-baby-faced Domhnall Gleeson — was taking “the show must go on” literally. They had trekked to midtown for the matinee performance, and we were invited to do the same.

To this point, I’d obsessed over my paperback copies of McDonagh’s plays, but had yet to see a staging. Nothing would stop me from attending this show famous for, above all else, the antagonist’s beloved cat — Wee Thomas — exploding on stage. So we layered up and went. Few people made it that day. When we gave the ushers our tickets, they pushed our hands aside and led us to the front, close enough for the fake kitty guts (fake, but all-too-realistic blood, fur, and bits of organs) to get all over our sweaters. We had room to dry our puffy coats across the adjoining empty seats.

In the mid-’00s, McDonagh was best known as that prodigious playwright, his shows reliably hot tickets both on and off Broadway. His first breakout play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, debuted in the U.K. in 1996, gradually ascending over two years to a Tony-award-winning Broadway run. Between then and 2002, McDonagh staged two more successful plays, rounding out the Leenane Trilogy — an astounding speed and hit rate for a young playwright.

Alongside and after the Leenane Trilogy, McDonagh launched a second series, dubbed the Aran Islands Trilogy. The first two plays he completed in the series feature quippier dialogue, bigger cultural targets, and a comical degree of onstage violence. They also cement McDonagh’s three loves: messy men, adored pets, and the “I love you so much I could kill ya” tension of brotherhood, both by blood and by friendship.

First came The Cripple of Inishmaan, a venomous stab at celebrity and Hollywood, and second came Lieutenant of Inishmore. The trilogy never concluded.

In a February 2006 interview, McDonagh told The New Yorker:

“I think I’ve said enough as a young dramatist. Until I’ve lived a little more, and experienced a lot more things, and I have more to say that I haven’t said already, it will just feel like repeating the old tricks. I want to just write for the love of it. And also grow up, because all the plays have the sensibility of a young man.”

Colm (Brendan Gleeson) plays violin at a table in the local pub in The Banshees of Inisherin Photo: Jonathan Hession/Searchlight Pictures

Around the time Inishmore premiered in New York, McDonagh began filming his first movie, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson’s father. The screenplay about two hitmen anxiously vacationing in Belgium while awaiting orders from their boss netted McDonagh a BAFTA and his first Oscar nomination. Fans of his work, or just popular films and plays in general, may know the rest.

Success brought even greater opportunity. McDonagh alternated his focus between movies with famous actors and Broadway plays with famous actors. His creative output slowed from supernatural to superhuman, but only grew in esteem. He shifted from the tales of Irish strivers and survivors to thematic explorations of fascists and their instruments, beginning with the fantastical The Pillowman, which blended the Brothers Grimm with 1984. Then he moved on to increasingly literal and modern depictions of the conflicting cruelty and humanity of the police state, with works like Hangmen, a play about precisely what you’d assume, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards is McDonagh’s most successful, most ambitious, and ultimately most frustrating work. A takes-no-bullshit middle-aged woman (Frances McDormand, who won the Best Actress Oscar for this role) seeks accountability from local police following a lack of movement in the case of her daughter’s rape and murder. She funds three billboards that humiliate the local police chief, but what follows isn’t a guts-on-the-table dissection of injustice. Instead, McDonagh offers a confounding semi-apologia for problematic men, emphasizing that, yes, even bigots have sympathetic backstories.

The theme — who does and doesn’t warrant forgiveness and mercy — dates back to the Greek tragedies, but crumbles in the modern small town of Midwest America. McDonagh’s both-sidesism tasted sour in 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and has curdled into something downright putrid in the years since.

Like so many movies that convert white masculine guilt into popcorn-friendly entertainment, Three Billboards became a colossal success, commercially and critically. It scored McDonagh Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, and won him a slew of other awards from the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and various film festivals and critic circles.

After Three Billboards, however righteous its intentions, I figured, for the first time, I wouldn’t be rushing to see any more of McDonagh’s work, let alone trudging through a blizzard. I assumed he would cash out with some Marvel tentpole or artsy riff on a DC Comics villain, akin to award-winning directors like Paul Haggis, who followed his Best Picture winner Crash by helping script the James Bond films Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

McDonagh did dive into some of the most iconic children’s stories of all time — albeit from the 19th century. A Very Very Very Dark Matter, a play about the origins of Hans Christian Andersen’s characters, premiered in London a few months after Three Billboards collected its merits. Critics were puzzled by the play, and the audience response was mixed. And so, for the first time in his career, McDonagh took an extended break, producing neither a new play nor film for four years.

Brendan Gleeson sitting inside a house as Colin Farrell looks at him through a window in the film The Banshees of Inisherin Photo: Jonathan Hession/Searchlight Pictures

The long walk back to the Aran Islands

For his return, McDonagh could have written either a film or a play and found plenty of eager financiers and producers. He opted, in a puckish way, to do both. The Banshees of Inisherin is a film with the soul of a play. I don’t say that figuratively. Before In Bruges diverted McDonagh’s career trajectory, he had begun work on what would have been the final play of the Aran Islands Trilogy.

The play was never performed, and the trilogy was never completed. Little has been revealed about the unstaged script beyond its name: The Banshees of Inisheer — the ever-so-slightly different title that Banshees itself used to kick off production.

Set on the fictional Irish isle of Inisherin in 1923 — as the end of the Irish Civil War is playing out across the water — The Banshees of Inisherin tells the tale of two lifelong friends who hit an immovable roadblock. Artist Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) has cut off his friendship with Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) with no warning or clear reason. The harder Pádraic fights to save the bond, or at least understand its dissolution, the more severely Colm responds, until he threatens to cut off his own fingers if Pádraic talks to him ever again. (This bit has been shrewdly emphasized in every trailer, to maximum dramatic effect.)

Inisherin isn’t really about self-mutilation. It’s concerned with how we choose to spend (or passively experience) our limited days on Earth, which diminish, like Hemingway says about the process of going bankrupt, “gradually, then suddenly.” I get why the marketing department at Searchlight Pictures chose to focus on finger-chopping instead. The slow encroachment of mortality doesn’t condense neatly into a trailer, and it’s hardly a “get butts in seats” draw in the age of streaming.

In the context of McDonagh’s catalog, his latest film feels like a return to form, an older writer traveling back to what worked in his early days: crappy dudes, cherished animals, and botched brotherhood. And the project reunites McDonagh with Farrell and the elder Gleeson, the same duo who headlined his first film, In Bruges.

But Inisherin isn’t just a return to his early work. It’s superior. The dialogue is less knowingly clever, the violence less flagrantly provocative, and the themes more complicated and mature. Colm and Pádraic are two sides of an argument about the selfishness and egotism of a life devoted to art, along with the fallacy of Great Art making us immortal.

Pádraic (Colin Farrell) has an impassioned heart-to-heart with his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) at the kitchen table in their small, dark Irish cottage in The Banshees of Inisherin Photo: Jonathan Hession/Searchlight Pictures

Colm, the artist, trades his best friend for someone he deems more interesting: an abusive cop (Gary Lydon) who wishes he was a hangman instead. McDonagh devoted Three Billboards and the play Hangmen to unpacking the inner lives of leaders in both professions. But the characters with big hearts, like Pádraic’s librarian sister (Kerry Condon) and his would-be new friend (Barry Keoghan), could have been plucked from McDonagh’s early plays. They’re messy folks with modest dreams who have themselves caught up in some unholy mess.

And so the pair face off with opposing views in their corners: the artist with his fixation on death and immortality, and the farmer, all too happy to ignore the reality that his clock too is ticking. But also, McDonagh’s later work is in tension with his younger work. When these conflicts are loosed on each other, the result is twin existential questions:

What good is being remembered if the pursuit of fame makes our life shit?

And what good is life if we’re forgotten the moment we become worm food?

McDonagh has been publicly suspicious of his critics, particularly those who framed Three Billboards and its characters as racist. So would he really write a script critiquing the entire body of his past work, and his own dedication to its creation? Would it even matter if he said yes or no? After all, what artist worth their salt doesn’t, at some point, reflect on what it all means? (Or meant.)

I do know this. Back in 2006, the younger McDonagh reached a fork in the road. On one path was the unproduced conclusion of the Aran Islands Trilogy. Down the other path: In Bruges, the hitman drama. The older McDonagh, the guy with more awards on his shelf than the 2006 version, and decades of Broadway box-office success to boot, no longer needs to choose whether to prioritize the creative freedom of the stage or the comparably massive reach of the screen.

With Inisherin, he returns to that fork and forces the two prongs together. McDonagh concludes the trilogy of plays with the actors who marked his split from stage to screen. In 2008, Farrell and Gleeson appeared in In Bruges, while Kerry Condon starred in the American staging of The Cripple of Inishmaan.

The Banshees of Inisherin has the violent fraternity of In Bruges, the skepticism of professional artists from Inishmaan, and the generational trauma of the Irish Civil War that floats in the backdrop of Inishmore. I could go on, but the connections between Inisherin and the writer’s early work are so plentiful that trying to pull them all together would be the critical equivalent of me covering a corkboard in scribbled note cards and a tangle of red yarn.

The Banshees of Inisherin doesn’t press a reset button that erases McDonagh’s past two decades of work. It couldn’t. It shouldn’t. Inisherin wouldn’t exist without everything that came since his surge of productivity in 1994 and his decision to leave the stage in 2006. It’s the fruit grown from an abundance of success.

The same year McDonagh wrote 10 plays, Quentin Tarantino released Pulp Fiction. That clever-but-crude, offensive-but-illuminating, quick-but-dense dialogue seemed to inspire the younger McDonagh’s budding voice, and likely partly helped him get his work staged by theaters looking for writing that matched the explosive energy coming from 1990s independent cinema. But that style never quite matched the playwright’s characters, who were the opposites of Tarantino: hitmen, but incompetent. Aspiring celebrities, but hacks. McDonagh’s early films — In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths — steered into the Tarantinoism, with In Bruges being full of homophobic slurs that serve as vicious punchlines.

Inisherin feels, for the first time, like McDonagh simply being himself. Gone is the edgy humor and the provocative bigotry. It’s like a weight has been lifted off his artistry, allowing it to float into a higher plane. His characters can talk — really talk — about how they feel. No winking meta humor. No provocations for fear the audience isn’t paying attention. This is the work of an older artist who has a story to tell, and finally cares about the audience that matters most: himself.

Some directors use their Oscars to make money, others to greenlight artistic larks. McDonagh leveraged his cachet and talent to do something we should all be lucky enough to do: He returned to what he loved. Not to relive or remake it, but just to revisit it, now a little wiser and deeper. He’s made good on his promise to that New Yorker interviewer 15 years ago: He grew beyond the voice of a young man who writes faster than he thinks.