Martin McDonagh is one of our greatest living playwrights, with his work being widely produced, from the sacred stages of Broadway to the smallest public theatres in Asia, and everywhere in between, his penchant for darkly comical morality tales being the source of many fascinating discussions under the direction of a range of artists who have chosen to take his work and make it their own through highly inventive and very original productions. However, his endeavours into the world of cinema have been less successful – with the exception of In Bruges (which was his first feature-length film, after his celebrated Six Shooter, which proved the power of short-form storytelling), his other films have felt like they lack the depth and nuance of his plays, usually being designed as more detailed productions that trade in the glamour of cinema for the grittier, more complex stories that McDonagh has built his theatrical career from putting together – there is even an argument to be made that his own brother, John Michael McDonagh, is a more gifted filmmaker. However, this has all shifted with The Banshees of Inisherin, which is by far the closest we’ve gotten to a McDonagh play on screen – and as a result, absolutely everything that made him such a celebrated and distinctive voice that has dominated theatre for the past three decades has emerged in the form of a riveting, complex and beautifully poetic character study, which is handcrafted by a director who finally has the opportunity to tell a story that is close to his heart, as well as expanding on his own filmmaking interests, which seem to finally match with his theatrical output, even if only marginally (since it is doubtful he will ever reach the heights of some of his plays in terms of pure composition that comes with his stage productions), as well as allowing him to reach new heights as a filmmaker, in terms of both narrative and visual complexity, which has felt inevitable since he set out to start a secondary career in cinema, the results of which we are only starting to see manifest now with the release of this exceptional and captivating work of pure and unhinged genius.
One of the characteristics that has always allowed McDonagh to stand out as a distinct authorial voice when it comes to his plays is his commitment to simplicity – his stories may simmer with complex themes and a range of ideas drawn from innumerable sources of socio-cultural and political influence, but they are all executed with direct and forthright honesty, being extremely straightforward, leaving very little room for confusion (which is not to be mistaken with their tendency to be open to interpretation), making them engaging and compelling narratives that keep us invested but never run the risk of losing our attention through convoluted storylines or bewildering plot developments that often populate contemporary theatrical works. The Banshees of Inisherin follows the same process, telling a simple story that is gradually developed into a fascinating depiction of a specific historical and cultural milieu, from which a series of profoundly fascinating conversations can be constructed. In this instance, we are taken to the small island of Inisherin, which sits just off the coast of the Irish mainland, transported back to the year 1923, in which we see the residents of this small pastoral hamlet deal with their own existential quandaries, set to the unforgettable score of the rifles and bombs that are just a stone’s throw away from their idyllic farmland paradise, their daily visits to the pub filled with conversation pertaining to every subject from the growing unease brought on by the Civil War, to the alarming contents of farm animal excrement, both subjects that seem vitally important to the residents of this island. A masterful example of McDonagh’s signature approach to storytelling, which are always filled to the brim with the darkest and most peculiar humour that borders on absurdism, The Banshees of Inisherin contains many of the director’s most celebrated traits, which are exquisitely compacted into every frame of the film, which thrives to be a bleakly comedic view of Ireland and its people at a very specific moment in the past, an examination of some deeper ideas that are filtered through a series of psychological and social obstacles that are interwoven with the narrative to create this visually striking and thematically rich dark comedy.
In every one of his films, and the vast majority of his plays, McDonagh makes use of religious references, whether incidentally or as major motifs that propel the stories. Whether it is a character questioning their faith, or simply going to confession in order to attain some degree of contrition for a certain misdemeanour, whether literal or psychological, these narratives always feature some degree of spirituality. The Banshees of Inisherin is McDonagh’s elegy for his own Irish Catholic upbringing, which regularly factors into his work, viewed from a perspective where this is not a film about religion as much as it is a story of morality, and the kinds of lessons that come about when one begins to look within and question their own existence, especially in contrast to the traditions that have been laid down so meticulously throughout the generations that preceded them. This isn’t a film that requires any involvement or experience within the church, or even that much of a working knowledge – but such factors do add nuance to the discussions McDonagh is having with the material, which flourishes into an allegory used to explore the history of Ireland, especially at such a distinct point in their past. It isn’t surprising that there are many oblique but intriguing correlations between this story and the tale of Cain and Abel, a betrayal between brothers and the subsequent revenge that puts them both at a disadvantage, the consequences they face provocative and terrifying. The Banshees of Inisherin takes the form of a parable, with clearly defined ideas and a strong message – but unlike traditional fables, the lesson that these characters learn is far darker and more bleak, with the punishment for their misdeeds being far darker than they ever imagined. As a result, the film straddles the line between realism and absurdism, frequently daring to venture into more abstract territory as it constructs this layered and unsettling depiction of the past, which holds a significant amount of gravity in relation to the events that we know were on the horizon for the country and its people.
There are certainly few films quite as deeply Irish as The Banshees of Inisherin, so it only makes sense that the people hired to bring these bold ideas to life are some of the finest the country has ever produced. The film is essentially a two-hander between Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who were also paired in In Bruges, both doing some of their finest work at the time, and delivering performances that are still exceptional, even if they have both continued to do exceptional work. Farrell has grown into one of our greatest living actors, someone who simply needed a few years to move past the burden of being typecast in unmemorable leading roles before finding his calling in the form of character-based work, collaborating with directors like Yorgos Lanthimos and Sofia Coppola, who managed to draw out his best qualities, as well as allowing him to leave behind those traits that were forced on him earlier in his career. However, it was McDonagh that started that with In Bruges, which showed a very different side to an actor everyone viewed as being limited based on some of the more notable roles he was given at the time – suddenly, he was allowed to be funny and emote in a way that we had never seen before, which has carried over for nearly two decades as he has continued to challenge himself as an actor. The Banshees of Inisherin is not any different and his performance as Pádraic Súilleabháin, a simple-minded farmer who aspires to a very simple life, feels like a logical continuation for an actor who has continuously proven himself far more capable of brilliant work than many gave him credit for – he has always been a character actor forced into being a leading man, and this film proves that he can do both equally as well. Gleeson on the other hand has always been celebrated as one of our most cherished actors, someone who can play a hero or a villain with equal aptitude and commitment. The Banshees of Inisherin allows him to play into elements of both, Colm Doherty being one of the most inexplicably complex characters of the past few years – a man who simply wants to live out the rest of his life in peace, liberated from the meaningless existence thrust upon him through a friendship that yielded very little positive impact on his life, which ultimately leads to his own downfall, the crux of the film’s fascinating exploration of a dying friendship, beautifully performed by two of the finest actors working today. This isn’t to invalidate Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan, both of whom are exceptional and add heart to their supporting performances which help buttress the immense work being done by the two leads.
McDonagh doesn’t write narratives that only have one dimension to their storytelling – they may be very simple in theory, but once you peer beneath the surface, you find that his work is very rarely only about the main ideas being explored through the premise. The Banshees of Inisherin may be an earnest dark comedy about two friends in rural Ireland discovering that they are no longer compatible, one of them choosing to step away from their companionship, but this is only the start, since there are numerous ideas that are introduced to us through the narrative, some of which may not even directly relate to the major themes at all, but rather only come about after the viewer does some reflection, looking deeper at the story and what it could potentially represent. There is a metaphysical complexity that drives this film and elevates it beyond the almost pedestrian tale of feuding neighbours, which is entertaining but lacks the depth that McDonagh usually infuses into his work. The metaphor may use the story of the disintegrating friendship between Pádraic and Colm as the framing device, but there are several other concepts that the director weaves into the story, which is most accurately described as a fervent examination of life as it is, how it always has been and how it always will be, a snapshot into the lives of a place lost in time, and the people who are similarly suspended in ambiguities, a cultural purgatory where they reside in limbo, doomed to repeat the same actions day after day, and where the only change comes about when it is forced (and only notable when it is violent and irreversible, as evident in the theme of amputation – another metaphor for which the film asks us to offer our own interpretation), and where the prospect of progress is beyond terrifying, since it signals changes that many may not feel they are ready to encounter – those who leave are the ones who embrace it, while those who stay behind reject the encroaching nature of modernity. It’s a complex idea that doesn’t sound particularly entertaining in theory, but when coupled with McDonagh’s scathing critiques of social conventions, as well as his effortlessly funny dialogue that is simmering with wit and complexity, it makes for a soul-stirring examination of the human condition, as facilitated by one of our greatest social and cultural critics.
Allegory has always been McDonagh’s prime narrative tool when constructing his stories, and without some degree of subtext, his work wouldn’t have too much nuance or engaging social commentary, instead just existing as straightforward stories of ordinary people. In many ways, the fact that he conceals so much meaning beneath such simple stories is one of his most significant artistic merits, especially when he is dealing with subjects that are not only very close to his heart, but represent an entire century of social and cultural history. The theme of a declining friendship is used as a metaphor for division and unity – it isn’t merely coincidental that several scenes in The Banshees of Inisherin make mention of the Civil War, whether in passing or as a dominant topic of conversation, despite the fact that the action is restricted solely to this island, our own encounters with the warfare occurring on the mainland being the distant sounds of artillery being used to fight a war that simply lacked a victor, at least in terms of looking at how the country changed in the wake of the conflict. The film indicates that the boundary between unity and division is far narrower than we may expect, and that one can become your enemy just as fast as they can become your friend (but which doesn’t actually function well in the other direction – it’s easier to lose trust than it is to gain respect), which is the conceptual starting point for most of the film. The Banshees of Inisherin may seem like a tragicomedy about a gradually deteriorating friendship that is only happening due to one of the two central characters simply deciding that he doesn’t have any time for trivial conversation or idly spending his days engaged with subjects that don’t matter and people that were never meant to amount to anything other than the most conventional, dull lives imaginable – but there is far more depth, whether it be in expanding on the theme of friendship, or introducing discussions on the inevitability of death and the importance of leaving a legacy behind, leading a film filled with meaningful moments. There is nuance in the ambiguity that this film evokes, and the emotions are potent but never overwhelming, allowing McDonagh and his collaborators to cobble together a fascinating and meaningful character study about the virtue of assessing one’s life from afar, to ensure that whatever time we have left, they are spent filled with meaning – the only difference being that every one of us defines the concept of a meaningful existence wildly differently, leading to much of the film’s dark but often hilariously funny observations about life.
One of the year’s most immersive and fascinating achievements, The Banshees of Inisherin is a terrific assemblage of bold ideas, carefully curated by a writer and director whose command over every aspect of his stories – from his depiction of the psychological state of his characters to the most intricate details of the language they use – has put him in good stead as a very effective artistic voice, and someone who may not be particularly prolific (having only made four films over the 15 years since he made his debut), but whose work feels urgent and essential, beyond simply being wildly entertaining in a way that he has effectively woven into his artistic identity, for which he is widely celebrated. It may feel intimidating to begin a conversation about this film – from its first moments, it feels immediate and urgent, a work of profound complexity and extraordinary detail, whereas a merely passive viewing would not even be vaguely sufficient in establishing a clear and concise understanding of the intentions that went into the film’s creation, which clearly entailed more than a very simple story of friendship set to the backdrop of a tumultuous time in Ireland’s history. However, the very simple fact that this is a story that can maintain such a level of simplicity, while still gradually unearthing deeper themes, is exactly the reason why it should be appreciated, not as a work defined by its complexities or ambiguities, but rather by its most accessible qualities that hide more curious and peculiar secrets. The Banshees of Inisherin is an achingly beautiful portrait of a few lives in flux, a memorable character study about two men who have grown apart as a result of seeing life in different ways, necessitating distance in order for each of them to achieve what they have always felt is owed to them. It’s a film that engages in the rare but beautifully precise art of observing life from afar, providing an intimate glimpse into the psychological states of its characters without interfering, instead choosing to allow the more vague themes to develop organically, allowing us beautiful insights into the worlds that these characters inhabit, and the quandaries that drive their entire existence.
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In Gaelic folklore, a banshee is a female who foretells death. Here the banshee of Inisherin is Mrs. McCormick, a withered prune of a woman who meanders the island draped in black. Played by veteran Irish character actress Shiela Flitton.
Like Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor in Key Largo, George Chakiris and Rita Moreno in West Side Story, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show, or Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, a few classic films are overtaken by the masterful work of supporting players.
Here Barry Keonagh and Kerry Condon dominate the film. There is a joy in seeing a skilled actor so exemplary that we bide time waiting for the lesser character to re-enter the frame and command the screen. Is there a more heartbreaking moment than watching Siobhán and Dominic stand by the water and each underplay the power of “There goes that dream then”?
Keonagh, Condon and McDonagh for the Oscar win