Both a spiritual prequel to In Bruges and the stuff of pub-legend, The Banshees of Inishirin describes how suicidal fiddler Colm (Brendan Gleeson) attempts to avoid simple friend Padraic (Colin Farrell) in the windbluffed isle off Ireland’s West Coast – vis a vis threatening to cut off his fingers.
Closer to the classic Playboy of the Western World in tone, McDonagh’s first feature film in Ireland feels like a shade of his early plays and older childhood haunts spent in Galway. There’s a subtle claustrophobia to the setting; a decision which elevates the film’s premise away from absurd paddywhackery towards lyric comedy. Like any stage Irishman, McDonagh indulges in quick tropes: pints mark the passing of the day, news travels quicker than fact, and Dominic (Barry Keoghan’s ) appears to be medically thick. But a lilting commentary gives these staples depth, whereby genuine complaints are dismissed as ‘no news at all’, and eccentricity is marked by real damage. In the beautiful shithole that’s Inisherin (self-consciously complimented by Colm as having lots of ‘s’s) the islanders’ ‘bitter and mental’ loneliness instills the wonderfully human quality of people damned by their own contradictions.
Driven half out of pride and idiocy, Padraic’s decision to keep reaching out to Colm is obviously doomed fiddler closer to cutting off his nose to spite his face. Farrell is expert in the fuzzy brows school of acting – wondering, dimly, if he might be the killjoy – while Gleeson’s bulldog features gives his descent into madness a likably soft-spoken determination. Like water and whiskey, the contrast between these two actors’ stagecraft never fails to mix well.
Kudos, too, to the whole ensemble. The bigoted naked policeman (Pat Shortt) and Colm’s despairing big sister (Kerry Condon) are another strong foil to Padraig, and help give the village a life of its own. It’s also a joy to see – after the oral travesty of Rings of Power –an Irish grammar that’s authentically Hibernian. Whereas the absurdism of Three Billboards drifted into a teenage nihilism that never (or perhaps too accurately) matched its subject matter, McDonagh’s lightly supernatural tale is content to be a brilliantly lyric script. It’s politics is in the lack of it, and the ridiculous rural trauma is the perfect material for Gleeson and Farrell’s wonderful double act. Touching on the Easter Rising, memorability and the limits of God, Banshees has every right to be suicidally morose – yet its gallows humor balances an existentially Irish message: it’s better to be dead than boring.
Enjoyed the film? Read here for a post-film conversation between Sam Murphy and his former editor Harry O’Mara.