The Banshees of Inisherin is a return to familiar territory for writer-director Martin McDonagh: It plays like a spiritual sequel to his pitch-black 2008 comedy-thriller In Bruges. That film, McDonagh’s feature debut, stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as hitmen hiding out in a version of Bruges designed to feel like Catholic purgatory. Farrell and Gleeson also lead Banshees, another whip-smart, wryly amusing tale driven by existential dread. This time around, they play much simpler men — a farmer and a musician, respectively — but they have the same anguish as their assassin counterparts, resulting in a film that maintains a spiritual vice grip over its audience, in spite of the charming setting.
Eventually, McDonagh (most recently the writer-director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) attempts to ground his abstract themes about mortality in the literal details of the story, causing the tension to dissipate. But the movie is such a rich, emotionally detailed text that not sticking the landing is only a minor mark against it.
Shot on the Irish islands of Inishmore and Achill — which stand in for the fictitious isle of Inisherin — the film feels both timeless and picturesque. Angelic choir notes score the opening scene, which follows Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell) on a routine stroll along Inisherin’s lush trails in the early 20th century. He’s checking in on his pal Colm Doherty (Gleeson) to invite him to the local pub for a pint, per their usual routine. But the quaint vision of paradise doesn’t last. Without spending even a moment on their backstory, McDonagh paints a vivid portrait of a friendship that has inexplicably crumbled, since Colm has decided — seemingly overnight — that he wants absolutely nothing to do with Pádraic, and he isn’t afraid to be blunt about it.
Pádraic, bewildered by Colm’s sudden rebuffs, can’t help but follow up and keep checking in with him, despite everyone’s advice to the contrary. This is where things take a macabre turn. To keep Pádraic away for good, Colm threatens to cut off one finger from his own fiddle hand every time Pádraic tries to speak with him.
Every scene is staged with an eye toward emotional repression, and an ear toward rhythmic dialogue and its subtext about death and what lies beyond — the exact same driving forces that made In Bruges so captivating. McDonagh keeps a keen focus on Farrell’s bemused attempts to put two and two together. His journey from denial to realization engenders sympathy, as he tries to make sense of a relationship thrown into sudden disarray, and deals with the lurking possibility that closure may forever remain out of reach. Each desperate attempt to find answers is just as much about discerning Colm’s motives as it is about Pádraic sussing out potential truths about himself. Who among us has not wondered what we’ve done so wrong that has made us so deserving of someone else’s ire?
But even once these cards seem to be laid on the table, Farrell’s construction of Pádraic continues to work in tandem with McDonagh’s winding text. Colm, a self-professed artist, would rather spend time writing music instead of making idle conversation, though it takes a while for him to get around to expressing his real reasoning. In the meantime, Farrell’s performance reflects shades of the potential accusations and implications of Colm’s cold shoulder. Is Colm too much of an intellectual for Pádraic? Is Pádraic too naive? Was there some drunken insult or slight he doesn’t fully remember?
Whatever the case, Farrell’s quiet moments paint Pádraic as an easily amused man who maintains a touching friendship with his farm animals. But Farrell truly shines in the way he deepens even Pádraic’s most seemingly one-note traits. He layers each idiosyncrasy with a recognizable innocence as Pádraic begins to introspect. His conversational drive is polite and superficial, but it’s bolstered by a seeming inability to string together the right words, or connect the dots between two successive thoughts or emotions, even when they’re full and rich. He’s always searching, more than the average person should. Then again, despite Colm’s more put-together facade, he’s always searching too. (Frequently at confession at the local church, where he’s too dismissive of his gossipy priest to find real enlightenment or self-reflection.)
Pádraic’s heartbreaking quest for answers is an uphill battle, especially when he begins to interrogate the movie’s rich tapestry of side characters — Pádraic’s educated sister Siobhán (a measured Kerry Condon), town simpleton Dominic (Killing of a Sacred Deer’s Barry Keoghan, throwing his hat in the ring as a modern Peter Lorre), and other pub-goers, who ride a fine line between unconfrontational and nosy. All of them seem to get along with Colm just fine, which leaves Pádraic adrift, wondering whether he really is to blame for the fallout. It’s hard not to be convinced by Gleeson’s quietly menacing delivery, with harsh whispers that turn even desperate pleas for isolation into adversarial threats.
Both men withhold with their emotions, but Farrell and Gleeson are such generous performers that their real-life friendship infects each frame. It makes the characters’ subdued affinity for each other feel all the more tragic once the friend-breakup is set in motion. This is especially evident during evenings at the pub, where the camera catches hesitant glances between them, as Colm plays music and Pádraic drinks away his sorrows. Those glimpses imbue the film with a borderline romantic warmth, which cinematographer Ben Davis paints with the dim flickers of candle- and lamplight.
Meanwhile, the seemingly timeless setting turns out to be very specific indeed. Explosions on the mainland, off in the distance, reveal the movie’s historical backdrop: the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s. The actual violence never touches Inisherin’s shores, and there’s certainly a case to be made that the film’s tale of brother turning against brother is a metaphor for the conflict, albeit a flimsy one. However, the encroaching doom and gloom places the characters’ mortality front and center. Colm doesn’t come right out and say it, but his sudden desire to create and to be remembered, like his idol Mozart, feels directly informed by the looming specter of death. (Or in the Irish folklore the film lightly touches on, the banshee.) And Colm is weighed down by a self-sabotaging streak that’s amusing but disturbing, given his threat to maim himself.
Both men are forced to reflect on themselves, and on what they bring to those around them — one through larger political events, and the other through personal grievance. The more these reflections yield wildly opposing results, the more Pádraic and Colm’s encounters become a breeding ground for festering tensions about how to move through the modern world when all seems lost. Colm wants to create. Pádraic simply wants to exist. In the face of death and loneliness, perhaps neither of these choices is better than the other.
McDonagh funnels all these philosophical musings through his stage sensibility, and his penchant for the ebb and flow of words. He often captures these verbal and emotional rhythms by racking focus between characters, rather than cutting between them, as if the film’s visual aesthetic were its own enrapturing melody. The actual music swings in the opposite direction, with Carter Burwell adding a sense of mischief and mystery through strings plucked a little too aggressively, as if Colm is weaving the film’s aural fabric while trying to fend off Pádraic’s advances.
The film uses humorous repetition to deal with its mournful weight, and to hammer home the sheer strangeness of its premise, resulting in one of the most darkly funny films of 2022. But McDonagh can’t quite find the right way to string all his heavy themes together once he enters its final act. As the story unfolds, the absurdist playwright in McDonagh comes rushing to the fore in a way it hasn’t in any of his films since In Bruges. Banshees maintains shades of the dark humor he brought to his 2001 stage play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which, while set in the early ’90s, also unfolds against the backdrop of sectarian Irish conflict, and similarly features an animal-loving protagonist named Pádraic. The problem, however, arises when McDonagh tries to graft the play’s Pádraic, and his violent emotional trajectory, onto his more restrained movie counterpart, when the two have little in common but their name.
As McDonagh tries to put words to his ethereal themes of mortality and remembrance in The Banshees of Inisherin, it winds up reading like an attempt to ground intangible spiritual dilemmas in concrete reasoning and definitive emotional paths. That mostly comes via a last-minute coincidence that feels largely disconnected from its characters. All of which makes the story more didactic and moralizing than the first two acts suggest it’s going to be.
Still, it’s surprisingly appropriate that the film should lose its way while trying to express the inexpressible, and trying to put words to emotions that Colm struggles to express. It’s hard to know how to talk about the lingering fear of how we’ll be remembered by the future once we’ve become the past. And until it strays off course, it remains a nuanced expression of this idea in the present, causing its characters to curdle and contort as they begin to believe they’re running out of time.
No one in this film is a wholly good person. Practically everyone is mean or irreverent in some way. What makes it such a riveting watch is their constant search for some semblance of goodness, understanding, or sense in a place and moment where little of those things exist. With its striking tonal balance, rich performances, and layered introspections, The Banshees of Inisherin represents McDonagh at his optimum, creating a complex work that captures the strange spectrum of human emotions experienced at death’s front door.
The Banshees of Inisherin opens in theaters in limited release on Oct. 21, with a national rollout to follow over the next few weeks.