Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are lifelong friends, who meet daily to drink at their local tavern on the small Irish island of Inisherin. One day, however, Colm does not turn up for a drink. When Pádraic tries to find what is wrong, Colm says he doesn’t want to speak to him any more. The more Pádraic works to restore their inexplicably severed friendship, the firmer Colm’s resolve becomes.
The Banshees of Inisherin is the latest feature film from acclaimed writer/director Martin McDonagh, who previous works have included Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. The most recent effort reunites McDonagh with Farrell and Gleeson, who co-starred in his 2008 breakout feature In Bruges. It is – as is to be expected – a confident, memorable, and enormously accomplished work.
At first glance Banshees represents very comfortable territory for McDonagh, combining elements from earlier works in a charming and easy-to-watch manner. There is a cast of colourful eccentrics, unexpected plot developments, and a healthy line in well-crafted, foul-mouthed dialogue. In many respects the film feels like a jump backwards through McDonagh’s career – there’s no earlier work Banshees resembles so well as his original theatrical play The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996). It’s all here: the quaint Irish setting, emphasised almost to a point of parody, but also the underlying melancholy and darkness.
Colm’s decision to abruptly end his and Pádraic’s friendship seems a perversely silly one, since it appears to have no logical basis or clear motive. Pádraic is demonstrably a relatively dull person: he is a local milk farmer, lives with his sister, and obsesses fussily over a small pet donkey. Colm has had many years to end their friendship, however, and the question that dominates the film is not so much why as why now? At first it drives much of the film’s best comic material, but as Colm’s behaviour becomes more extreme and threats begin to be made, it starts being less immediately amusing and more mysterious and disturbing. There is a word for this kind of story, in which something inexplicable occurs that punctures the serenity and calm of a small rural community, and which cannot be explained, and leads to escalating fear and the threat of violence. No one else writing about this film seems to be saying this, but I think there is a solid claim that The Banshees of Inisherin is a horror story.
Do not misunderstand me. Banshees is still a comedy, and a really good one. It has terrifically funny moments, wonderful performances, and is shot, paced, and scored wonderfully. Farrell and Gleeson are outstanding in their roles, as is co-star Kerry Conlon as Pádraic’s sister Siobhán, but it’s Barry Keoghan as de facto village idiot Dominic Kearney who makes the most impressive impact. What ultimately pushes it for me from good to great is that sensational undercurrent of the uncanny: the strange behaviour, the sudden punctums of violence, along with the constant growing threat of it. In moments the film even edges oddly on the supernatural. I feel it is more than simply black comedy, which has often been McDonagh’s stock-and-trade. There is an underlying menace to the piece that makes the comedy that little bit sharper, and the characters more haunted. In effect it uses the conventions of one genre to complicate and emphasise the other: the story makes sense, but at the same time it cannot adequately be explained. It is honestly a work of genius. This is one of the finest films of 2022.
The Banshees of Inisherin opens in Australian cinemas on 26 December 2022.