by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
Content Warning: Brief mentions of depression, mental health, sexual abuse and gore. Also contains minor plot spoilers for the film.
On the face of it, The Banshees of Inisherin is darkly humorous, but very much with an emphasis on the comedy. Across two hours of runtime, we see two fifty-somethings on the woefully dull titular island come to terms with one of them (Brendan Gleeson as Colm Doherty) abruptly ending their lifelong friendship. The reason? Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) is a bit boring to talk to. It’s the kind of comical triviality which underscores the entire movie, similar to that of director Martin McDonagh’s first feature-length effort, 2008’s In Bruges (also starring Gleeson and Farrell as the leads). The laughable tension of it all escalates further, as Doherty threatens to cut off one of his fingers every time his former friend tries to converse with him.
But much like In Bruges, The Banshees of Inisherin shows its true colours as the runtime builds. We see a kind of darkness creep in; the desolation of loneliness, of how men act in a society where depression is squashed down or mocked when brought out into the open. A setting where nothing happens but endless farming and drinking. We witness Farrell’s character lose everything he has, but chooses to keep it all inside, instead of talking about his real feelings, even to his own family.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a film about masculinity in a deprived time – against the backdrop of war-torn, 1920’s Ireland – where men say few words, and all it takes is knowing about Mozart’s existence to be considered a ‘thinker’. There are themes of mental health, sexual abuse and toxic father figures. Beside every laugh and purposely pointless bit of dialogue, there’s a glint of sadness, an underlying sense of dread that we can’t help but get lost in ourselves.
I didn’t know if it would be my ‘kind’ of film. I knew the basic premise, and that it was perhaps more tragic than comedy, unlike that of In Bruges. But that was all. And yet, I was utterly enchanted for nearly two hours, as I saw two inseparable friends face down the bitter reality of small town life, of wanting to leave one’s mark on the world in a place that everyone else – even those on the Irish mainland – has seemingly forgot. The fictitious Inisherin is sculpted beautifully, a splotchwork of low, cobbled walls and long, unending rambles that, whilst at first appear something from a Bohemian’s paradise, become pained and drawn out as the movie progresses.
There are corrupt policemen, a mad old woman who seems some kind of prophet, a nosy shopkeeper, comical barkeeps and even a decent amount of gore. But that sets the movie up to be some kind of Irish Baby Driver. In reality, it’s a beautifully rendered piece of cinema which makes you chuckle, aye, but more than that, calls into question what it must have been like to live in such a barren place, devoid of happenings and emotion. The Banshees of Inisherin may well be McDonagh’s best work yet, no meagre praise given the genius of his feature-length debut, and the poignant beauty of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
It’s a fractured tale, and one that, somehow – even on the cusp of 2023 – seems more needed and more real than ever before. Gleeson and Farrell deliver seamless, outstanding performances as the two protagonists, and help weave a narrative as compelling as it is haunting. It’s not the kind of film that will be for everyone, especially in an age of churned-out superhero flicks and infuriatingly cerebral ‘arthouse’ movies. The Banshees of Inisherin lies somewhere between the two, carving out its own little niche and filling the space with more subtlety and nuance than one would dare to dream.