Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is a darkly humorous rumination on male friendship, life, mortality, and loneliness. Set on a small island off the west coast of Ireland, we follow two friends, Pádraic Súilleabháin, played by protean Colin Farrell, and Brendan Gleeson’s Colm Doherty, whose staunch resolve ignites Pádraic’s lurking animus.
The story opens with Colm not wanting to be friends with Pádraic anymore, with no explanation except that he finds Pádraic boring. Pádraic is at a loss and won’t accept no for an answer, no matter how dire the circumstances become. When Colm threatens to cut off his own fingers if Pádraic continues to try to engage him, Pádraic doesn’t take him seriously, even after Colm cuts off his first finger. In a speech at the pub, Pádraic says he realizes that Colm may not have been nice all along and that he himself is a nice person, even if he is boring. What we discover, though, is that Pádraic isn’t a nice person because he can’t respect his friend’s wishes and doesn’t care about his well-being or happiness. After Colm maims himself, which could impede him from playing the violin, Pádraic’s hubris and ego won’t let him be embarrassed and made to feel inferior. He can’t let go because he has nothing else.
This is intelligent, byzantine storytelling anchored by Ben Davis’s fluid cinematography and a mellifluous score by Carter Burwell. Colin Farrell is always solid, but he’s superb when he does Irish-based films. He’s very much in his element and his acting prowess truly shines in these types of films. In Banshees, we go from feeling sorry for Pádraic to being disturbed by his clingy behavior. Farrell subtly changes from being dim to dark.
Kerry Condon gives an earnest and passionate performance as Siobhan Súilleabháin, the only voice of reason in Pádraic’s limited life. She realizes that life on Inisherin is a dead end and gets a job on the mainland. Pádraic and Colm’s feud escalates once she leaves, Pádraic’s horrible nature fully emerging. He goes from being boring to psychotic, which Colm ultimately appreciates. It’s made his passing time on Inisherin more interesting.
Sheila Flitton’s eerie Mrs. McCormick is the island’s banshee. Her warning about someone dying on the island symbolizes the slow death that all the residents face by not doing more with their lives. When the highlight of the day is going to the pub or herding cattle, it’s time for some perspective, which is what Colm is trying to get.
The Banshees of Inisherin isn’t a big, sparkly actioner or pure comedy. Most comedy is based on trauma and tragedy, though, and this film successfully tests that edict. With crackling dialogue and a plot delving into the nature of friendship and isolation set against a numinous tableau, this is one of the year’s best films.