It won’t be everyone’s cup of misery, but it’s certainly mine. Here is another crowning work by Martin McDonagh and his cherished collaborator Collin Farrell. Rarely does an actor-director duo so charismatically embody the best parts of the working relationship. This is not In Bruges (2008), because only that movie is that movie. Likewise, only The Banshees of Inisherin is this movie, another unimpeachable triumph. It comes as a return to form for McDonagh who last made the lightly Oscar-baiting Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), a perfectly fine movie that was relevant for its awards season. The Banshees of Inisherin, likewise, ought to be an awards play, but is also specific in the way the best movies are so that you can extract from it all kinds of universality.
Male friendships are hard. Men do not know how to sit and talk about things. They like going out and doing things. But really having meaningful, one-on-one relationships, not based around events and gatherings, often feels insurmountable. The natural drive for competition makes it hard. Once you have a family, the sense of self-protection and guardianship makes it nigh-impossible. How does anyone have a male friendship? Once you have one, how can you possibly keep the dynamics in order, so the relationship feels like an ongoing, evenly distributed partnership of effort and both parties get what they want? I struggle every day with this matter and think most men I know also do. We want real connections. They are not available to us. In the movie’s parlance, it’s fecking hard. This is a definitive work on the subject.
Pádraic (played by Collin Farrell’s eyebrows) is having a bad day. Everything was fine yesterday. But today he goes down to the pub and his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) decided he doesn’t like him anymore. Pádraic is a dull man, he says. He wants to focus on his music and higher pursuits than dull conversation, he says. This makes Pádraic distraught, left to his work of herding cows around the town. He’s left in the company of his biggest supporter, his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), who lives in books and is fated to leave the island, and Dominic (Barry Keoghan), who has a one-way interest in Pádraic’s sister. None of the men in the film get anything they want out of their relationships. All Colm wants is to be left alone and when this doesn’t happen, he begins to give escalating ultimatums: he’ll start cutting off one of his fingers and leaving them at Pádraic’s door. Men will do anything to avoid relationships that really make them see themselves.
It’s the 1920s and the Irish Civil War is underway. Adjacent to Pádraic and Colm’s falling out, the country is swept into social and political unrest. The film takes place on a gorgeous fictional island just off the coast of the Irish mainland. It’s a working metaphor, where the action of the foreground and the background reflect each other, the intersection of interpersonal and social turmoil. Spiritually foreboding energies float around the island. Fates walk by and speak of imminent death. Nobody gets along and nobody gets to be remembered.
As stark black comedies go, The Banshees of Inisherin is always funny and always means something. When characters interact, it always advances our understanding of who they are. All of the performances are keyed in and superbly directed and written by McDonagh. There is not a word or scene out of place. The film carries a deeply moving sentiment about male loneliness that so radically different from the standard Bressonian model. It understands that men are not just lonely but they crave a companionship that is often totally unavailable to them. It’s a wonderful work on every level, a gorgeous seaside allegory that intelligently offers bleakness and compassion for its characters. Sometimes movies make us feel less alone.