Given that playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh's previous film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2019), left me cold and wondering why so much critical praise was being heaped on such a bilious, viciously cynical would-be satire of corruption and apathy in the American Midwest, you can only imagine how surprised I was that I found his newest film, The Banshees of Inisherin, so galvanizing in its brash mixture of pitch-black hilarity and dramatic despair. Everything that I disliked in Three Billboards-the cruel and angry characters, the relentless conflict, the abrupt tonal shifts-works here, perhaps because McDonagh is working in the familiar territory of Ireland. Born in London to emigrant Irish parents, McDonagh spent much of his childhood in Ireland and was immersed in its culture and history and politics, which fueled his early stage career (his ideas about flyover America are about as astute and convincing as Lars von Trier's).
Set entirely on a tiny, fictional island off the west coast of Ireland in the early 1920s, The Banshees of Inisherin is about two best friends whose relationship is suddenly and unexpectedly ended by one of them. The two friends are Pdraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), who for years have met for pints at the local tavern and are assumed by everyone on the island to be inseparable buddies. But, one day Colm, the older of the two, informs Pdraic that he simply does not want to be friends anymore. When Pdraic presses him for a reason for this sudden and unexpected dissolution of their friendship, Colm is brutally (but not necessarily cruelly) honest in saying that he simply finds Pdraic to be too dull to spend any more time with and he would rather spend it on other things, particularly composing and playing music on his fiddle. Pdraic, who is a bit simple and dull, but seems to be decent enough, is perplexed by this turn of events and, as might be expected, insists on trying to maintain the friendship, assuming that if he pushes enough, Colm will see the error of his ways and reinstate it. But, as it turns out, Colm is quite determined to have nothing to do with Pdraic, to the point that he threatens to start cutting off his own fingers if Pdraic so much as talks to him-which, of course, Pdraic does, and the fact that Colm actually follows through with his threat is but the first of the film's bitter-funny shocks. Because the island is so small, everyone knows everyone else, so the breakdown between Pdraic and Colm affects others, as well, including Pdraic's sensible sister, Siobhn (Kerry Condon), a local boy named Dominic (Barry Keoghan), and Dominic's abusive father, who is also the island's policeman.
Farrell and Gleeson first appeared together in McDonagh's directorial debut, In Bruges (2008), a dark comedy about two Irish assassins holed up in the titular Belgian city after a botched hit, and they are marvelous here in deeply complicated roles (McDonagh has said that he wrote the characters with Farrell and Gleeson in mind). Farrell's Pdraic is a sweet simpleton who simply cannot grasp the depths of the situation in which he finds himself, and it is the film's greatest tragedy that he finds himself drawn more and more to violence and vengeance because, lacking Colm's friendship and with Siobhn leaving for the mainland to take a job as a librarian, he has little else to hold onto. Gleeson's Colm is even trickier in that he risks becoming a kind of "villain" for his coarse treatment of Pdraic, yet Gleeson fills him with such a deep sadness and fear of how little life he has left that we forgive his brusqueness. The manner in which he cuts Pdraic off could have easily read as cruel, but Gleeson's performance makes it more an act of desperation, which gives the film tragicomedy a blistering edge that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. It's a delicate balancing act, and McDonagh pulls it off with astonishing grace, punctuating the film's humanity with heavy doses of ambiguity that keep you thinking and wrestling with the characters long after the credits have rolled.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Fox Searchlight
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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