On a small unnamed island in Ireland, the simple and serene Pádraic Súilleabháin (a perfectly older Colin Farrell) has a routine. Every day, he goes to pick up his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) at 2 o’clock and together they go to the local pub to have a pint of room temperature Guinness, while overlooking the verdant country below them. And occasionally, they notice the gun fights from the Civil War unfolding across the water, because this is 1923 Ireland.
But on this day, the day when the film begins, Colm doesn’t answer the door. He’s inside his cozy house decorated with trinkets and masks from around the world, smoking and listening to music from his gramophone. He doesn’t even turn to look at Pádraic knocking on his door, peeking through his window.
As the story of Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin unfolds, the friendship between these two men unravels. It is a one-sided move, strictly coming from Colm, who icily admits that he can’t stand his friend anymore. Life is too short, he wants to write his beloved folk music and be inspired for the few years he thinks he has left. He doesn’t want to listen to Pádraic drone on about useless things. "Sit somewhere else," he says to his former friend, painfully emotionless, as any of us who has ever lost a friend understands.
This is the premise of The Banshees of Inisherin, which is complete of course with a kind of village Banshee (in Irish legends, a spirit who foretells death) of its own. She is an older, ominous looking woman played by the sublime Sheila Flitton who dishes out prophecies and premonitions, including “two deaths” to come. All the while dressed in head to toe black, complete with a cape covering her head.
Because this is a McDonagh film, we cannot expect the first half, which comes complete with an unabashed sense of humor, to keep up for very long. And in fact, right before our eyes, the comedic, jokey tone takes a heavier course and the film turns into a tragedy. A tragedy not simply because of the aforementioned deaths involved but because the story is as much about a friendship’s undoing as it is about a man’s own breakdown and how that takes along everyone who comes in his path. And the final brilliance of the film is how the situation mirrors the Irish people's fate, the idea that two neighbors, once perfect friends, can come to hate one another so much that they become hell bent on destruction — their own, of course, as well. Personally, I always found that Irish filmmakers like Jim Sheridan and McDonagh make cinema that could easily translate to a Palestinian story, if you substitute Arab actors for the Irish ones, Occupied Palestine for Ireland.
The story also gives new meaning to the old saying “cut off his nose to spite his face,” and there are several cringe inducing moments when I had to look away.
A dear friend, when we were discussing the film a few days later, pointed to the way Pádraic’s character is slowly beaten down, first psychologically by his friend, then physically by the town’s abusive policeman. And then finally by life. Everyone he loves has left him, and he can’t for the very life of him come to terms with why that happened. He’s kind, he’s decent and, this is my very own point of view of course, he’s cute. The cutest we’ve ever seen Colin Farrell be — as well as deserving of an Oscar, inshallah. As his friends, which include his pet dwarf donkey Jenny and the slow-witted son on the town's policeman, Dominic Kearney (played with poetic beauty by the perfectly cast Barry Keoghan) begin to dwindle away, Farrell shows us the breaking down of his character, devoid of a thespian's manipulation or self pity.
We have all felt beaten by life at some stage of our own journey on this unpredictable earth of ours, and this film is so very moving because we all understand what Farrell’s character goes through. At one point, as his former friend Colm helps him home, after he’s been beaten by Peadar Kearney in the town square, Påadraic breaks down — exhausted and devastated. It is a moment so touching, so poignantly true to life that tears streamed down my face as well.
What makes it even more tragic is that we understand Colm’s own motivations as well, and we also get why Pádraic’s sister Siobhan (played by the extraordinary Kerry Condon) does what she does — which I’ll avoid disclosing here along with the rest of the spoilers which would ruin the viewing for those reading this piece. This is a film you need to discover on your own, so shy away from reviews that give away the whole story.
What I can give away though is that Siobhan seems to be the survivor in this story, the one who manages to react to the sadness and do something about it. This almost anticlimactic need to find happiness is even present in the way she dresses, and kudos to costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh for the vibrance and exuberance of her choices in dressing this character. The mustard colored coat Siobhan wears towards the end of the film will remain in my own fashions in film consciousness along with the Dior dresses worn by Grace Kelly in Hitchcock's Rear Window and the coat the lead character wears in Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, which also happens to be mustard colored.
And as far as cinematic magic is concerned, the balance of perfectly captured cinematography by DoP Ben Davis, the production design by Mark Tildesley — along with the whole art direction and set decoration team on the film — the courageous (and by that I mean, never dragging, always perfectly timed) film editing by Mikkel E.G. Nielsen and the haunting music by Carter Burwell, all combine to make sure that with The Banshees of Inisherin, writer and director Martin McDonagh scores another winner.
Ireland, United Kingdom, United States/109 minutes/2022
Dir/writ: Martin McDonagh
Prod: Martin McDonagh, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin
Exec prod: Daniel Battsek, Ben Knight, Peter Kohn, Ollie Madden, Diarmuid McKeown
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Editor: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan, Gary Lydon, Sheila Flitton