The setting: the remote Irish island of Inisherin. The year: 1923, near the end of the Irish Civil War. This may not seem like the most exciting backdrop for a film. But Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” (2022) is more than meets the eye and certainly worth a watch.
McDonagh began his career as a playwright but has proven himself to be a skilled film director and screenwriter as well. He entered the filmmaking world with “In Bruges” (2008) and struck gold with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017); he reunited with the stars of his first film, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, for his latest project. His works are known for their witty dialogue, down-to-earth characters and dark comedy, and “Banshees” is no exception.
The island of Inisherin is fictional — you won’t find it on a map — but McDonagh’s craftsmanship and attention to detail make it feel so real. Life in Inisherin is rural and undemanding; some residents don’t even pay attention to the war that’s happening on the mainland. Instead, the central conflict of the story is the relationship between its main characters, Colm (Gleeson) and Pádraic (Farrell), who spend every afternoon drinking together at the local pub. One day, Colm suddenly decides to end their friendship, telling Pádraic “I just don’t like you no more.” Colm is eager for a change of pace and would rather compose music on his fiddle than waste his hours away with his tiresome friend.
Colm gives Pádraic an unusual ultimatum: every time Pádraic tries to speak to him, Colm will cut off one of his own fingers. Despite Colm’s warnings, Pádraic just can’t stay away from his lifelong friend, and Colm eventually follows through on his promise, hurling a severed finger at Pádraic’s cottage door. As his relationship with Colm deteriorates, Pádraic confides in his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon), hapless local boy Dominic (Barry Keoghan) and his beloved pet donkey Jenny.
Before Colm gives his dire ultimatum, “Banshees” feels like a comedy with compelling characters and sharp dialogue. Remarkably, the film’s underlying humor doesn’t get lost even as the story takes several dark turns. Farrell gives one of his best performances in this film as the over-eager Pádraic, desperate to find meaning in his life after being shunned by his best friend. Gleeson’s Colm is more of a mystery, a melancholy artist who says just as much in his silences as he does with his words. Condon gives a quietly brilliant performance as Pádraic’s sister Siobhan, who dreams of leaving Inisherin, and Keoghan’s Dominic, an outcast who befriends Pádraic, has some of the funniest lines in the film. A small but crucial role, the titular “banshee” is Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), a shadowy local widow who foresees death on the idyllic island.
McDonagh’s direction and writing elevate the cast’s performances, making a story that would otherwise seem ridiculous feel so grounded in reality. The beauty of “Banshees” is that it tells a universal story about friendship and loneliness that could exist in any time or place (albeit without the severed fingers). What makes the story so unique is the way it candidly explores toxic masculinity and male friendship: Colm doesn’t see the damage he’s doing to himself or his friend, and Pádraic is willing to go to great lengths to maintain their relationship, even if it means putting others at risk.
Although the film’s leisurely pace and thick Irish accents may not entertain everyone, it’s hard not to appreciate the world McDonagh has created in “Banshees.” The stunning backdrop of Inisherin is enhanced by excellent costumes and production design, and composer Carter Burwell, a frequent collaborator of McDonagh’s, transports audiences to another world with a plucky, unmistakably Irish score.
"Banshees," which came out in theaters in October, made its streaming debut on HBO Max last month. The film won Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, Best Actor — Musical or Comedy (for Farrell) and Best Screenplay at last week’s Golden Globe Awards, and is gaining steam as awards season continues.
In one of the film’s best scenes, Pádraic confronts Colm at the pub, telling him, “You used to be nice.” In response, Colm says nice people don't stand the test of time the way artists and musicians do; he wants to accomplish something that people will remember him for decades later. Although there's no way of knowing whether Colm’s music had the lasting impact he hoped for, McDonagh’s “Banshees” is sure to be remembered for years to come.