“I just don’t like ya no more.”
In terms of sentences that have kickstarted wars and caused bloodshed, this simple utterance is pretty tame. It’s not as declarative as “The world must be safe for democracy,” not as inspirational as “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets…”, not as passive-aggressive as “You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.” It is still world-shaking, however, to the Irish man hearing it, especially as its coming from the mouth of his best friend in the world. Every day, Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) walks down the unpaved road that runs along the edge of his village on the island of Inershin, past the stone walls and statue of the blessed virgin, to the house of Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson). Then they go over to the local pub and, pints in hand, waste the afternoon away with small talk and song. It’s been this way since Pádraic can remember. It’s the way things will be until the end of time.
Then, one day, Pádraic leaves the modest house he shares with his sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), and his cow herd, and Jenny the miniature pet donkey, and goes to fetch his drinking companion. There’s no answer to his knock. He spies Colm through the window, sitting alone, smoking. Confused, the man ambles down to the tavern by himself. “Have you been rowin’?” asks the bartender. “I don’t think we’ve been rowin’,” Pádraic replies. When he finally catches up to Colm at the bar, his pal tells him to sit somewhere else. What’s going on, the younger man wants to know. And then Colm says the seven words that will cost these two gents a lot more than just their friendship.
Both a comedy and a tragedy — one that substitutes Irish wit and irony for the Greeks’ gods and monsters — The Banshees of Inisherin somehow feels ancient; it takes place in 1923, not coincidentally when Ireland was embroiled in its own Civil War, yet you’d swear that it was adapted from a fable scribbled centuries ago. If you only know writer-director Martin McDonagh from his films, like the Beckett-with-bullets buddy comedy In Bruges (2008) or the curiously divisive Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MIssouri (2017), you might find this more subdued than his usual concoctions of pulp-fiction archetypes with a penchant for poetic profanity. Fans of the former will still be jazzed to see Farrell and Gleeson doing their double act again, of course, and there’s enough gloriously warped verbiage to scratch that bad-mouth-fast-talk itch. You won’t believe how lyrical the colloquialism “feck” can be, regardless whether it’s used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, a sign of affection or a salty exclamation.
But if you’re familiar with McDonagh’s early theater work, you’ll recognize the real roots of this mournful, magnificent addition to his tales of talkative men and violence. Having made his name with two trilogies of plays in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the London-bred Irishman ended up stalling on the last entry of his “Aran Islands” cycle known as The Banshees of Inisheer. He abandoned the work and moved on, yet something about the music of that title must have stuck with him — ditto the notion that he had unfinished business with a tumultuous part of the nation’s history. After McDonagh began making movies, you could start to see certain Royale-with-cheese influences that characterized his film work start to creep into his playwriting; his 2010 play A Behanding in Spokane couldn’t be more Tarantinoesque. This new film isn’t so much a return to form as a re-circling back to his original subjects, and maybe original sins: an elliptical, almost folklorish story of men in crisis doubling as a portrait of a nation in existential turmoil. A slightly tweaked title can’t hide the fact that McDonagh is revisiting two pasts here.
That’s one way of looking at The Banshees of Inisherin; another way is to recognize that, blessed with a few decades more experience and chops under his belt, McDonagh has also crafted what may be his most mature, if somewhat mysterious work about the agony and ecstasy of moving on. Colm no longer wants to be friends with the admittedly dim-witted Pádraic because he feels he’s wasting what little time he has left on Earth by listening to this backwoods shepherd blather on about nothing. Being an accomplished fiddler, Colm wants to compose a new musical masterpiece of his own, and he believes that such idle chat distracts from his mission. Hence, he’s cutting Pádraic out of his life entirely. No one — not his befuddled companion, not the similarly restless and ambitious Siobhan, not the town idiot Dominic (Barry Keoghan, absolutely nailing the character’s horny, hapless, hopeless vibe) — understands the cold-turkey mentality here. So Pádraic is nice but boring. Is that reason enough for a bromance break-up?
What everyone in this quaint, gossipy village does comprehend, however, is rage, and pain, and loneliness, and that’s the currency Banshees trades in. McDonagh doesn’t make either of these men saints or sinners — one just wants to create something beautiful and lasting in the world, the other is simply content to be kind to all while he’s here, even if it’s impermanent. Both of them are flawed, and once an ultimatum is issued, both of them are fucked. Pádraic’s inability to let go and take no for an answer means that he keeps badgering his ex-friend about the why of it all. So Colm finally says: I’ll cut off a finger for every time you bother me. We’ll note that the gent is definitely a man of his word, and leave it at that. And while McDonagh has purposefully been coy about the real-life political background of his story — every so often, gunfire and explosions can be heard from the mainland off in distance — he’s not shy about using a sick sense of humor to underline a sense of despair over unexplained changes of heart. Whether it’s happening on a smaller or larger level, the hint is that it always ends in escalation, self-destruction and no sign of resolution. Blood relations and bonds became collateral damage.
McDonagh also wants to give his actors a hell of a showcase, too, and it’s the two stars butting brows at the center of The Banshees of Inisherin that make this a masterpiece of men behaving very feckin’ badly. We don’t want to ignore the great work that Keoghan or Condon are doing on the periphery, or the exquisite cinematography by Ben Davis, or Carter Burwell’s ability to channel both regional folk music and a universal sense of grief in his score. It’s just that the Farrell-Gleeson Blues Explosion is what grounds McDonagh’s heady notions and fuels its fire.
There’s such an incredible give and take between these two, and while we’ve been taking Gleeson’s off-kilter charisma for granted since 1998’s The General, the performance that leaves scars is Farrell’s. It’s tough to think of a portrayal that finds so many emotional shades and levels of depth in incomprehension; his Pádraic can’t grasp the logic behind his friend’s decision any more than he can control his reactions, his sudden neediness or the shame that he’s done something wrong by doing nothing much with his life. You also see why a friend might be tempted to back away from him as well, yet you never feel that Farrell is tipping his hand toward sympathy or antipathy for this remarkably simple soul. It’s not a coincidence that the two men give the film’s ending a sense of ambiguity regarding what might happen after the credits role. Yet it’s also not a mistake that Farrrell is the one who gets the final shot, and that he’s the fella who leaves you with the sense that you’ve just witnessed wounds that may never heal. May the Banshees shriek for this duo forever. As for McDonagh: Welcome back.