Martin McDonagh became famous for his stage plays set in his native Ireland such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, but his three movies so far have assiduously avoided his homeland, taking place in Belgium and America. The Banshees of Inisherin (based on an unproduced play called The Banshees of Inisheer that would have served as the third in his Aran Islands trilogy) places him back on the Old Sod, and for that reason and others, it’s the one of his films that feels most like his plays, thick and Guinness-dark with his blend of hilarity and violence. I don’t know if it’s better than his Oscar-winning previous film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I do like it better than any of his films, because it feels particularly him.
The story is set in the spring of 1923, when the IRA and the Irish Free Staters are busy killing each other. On the fictitious island of Inisherin, dairy farmer Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) is wrapped up in something much more important than civil war. His longtime best friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) has suddenly cut him off, saying, “I just don’t like ya no more.” With two other people, that might be the end of it, but Pádraic simply will not let it go. He proceeds to become the whiniest bitch on the island, asking all and sundry at great length whether he’s really boring and stupid like Colm says. The island’s entire population becomes caught up in this broken-up friendship whether they want to be or not, because what else is there to do in this remote location?
This could easily be the setup for some cozy comedy about village eccentrics, but McDonagh keeps it off that territory, with the prospect of bloodshed driven by petty grudges always electrifying the air. Colm becomes so fed up that he swears to cut off his own fingers if Pádraic talks to him again, and somehow Pádraic still can’t take a hint. Colm’s stubbornness leads the priest (David Pearse) to scream obscenities at him in the middle of church. Later, in a crowded pub, a drunk and fully out-of-control Pádraic sees Colm befriending the local cop (Gary Lydon) and not only accuses the latter of beating his son (Barry Keoghan) — which we know to be true — but also of raping the boy, which we don’t know. For his part, the policeman doesn’t react because he’s already resolved to kill Pádraic over unrelated matters. Amid all this, Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) looks for a way to escape the madness even though her brother may go insane without her.
The role is a showcase for Condon, who has stolen the spotlight away from Oscar nominees in Dom Hemingway and The Last Station and here radiates desperation to get away to the Irish mainland because being in the middle of a war will be more peaceful. This actress deserves to be known as more than just the voice of Iron Man’s digital assistant, but the real revelation here is Farrell, who is enjoying a banner year with After Yang and The Batman. This might just be the performance of his career, as he underscores the pathetic quality in Pádraic’s needy and all-consuming quest to discover why his friend has left him. He manages to be both funny and coming dangerously unhinged, as the pedophile accusation against the cop illustrates. Later, when one of Colm’s severed fingers causes the death of a prized livestock, Pádraic starts gathering up supplies to take revenge in kind. One of the neighbors pleads with Pádraic not to kill Colm’s beloved border collie, and without looking at them, Pádraic says, “Don’t put ideas in my head that weren’t there.”
Placing all this in front of the Irish Civil War (which figures here in the form of explosions on the mainland that the characters hear from Inisherin) makes the point that if it weren’t for religion and politics, human beings would still find reasons to kill one another. The plotting is satisfying, and karma catches up with that policeman in an extremely brutal way. Underneath all the black comedy is a sense of deep sadness that these friends now have to share the island without talking to each other. It’s this that gives The Banshees of Inisherin its painful gravity, the sense that drifting apart from the people you cherish is simply part of life.
The Banshees of Inisherin
Starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Rated R.