The Banshees of Inisherin
I might not be the best person to judge the fullest merits of Martin McDonagh’s latest. The Banshees of Inisherin is every bit as well observed and mordantly funny as his best two earlier pictures – In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – but its lingering emphasis on dismemberment and its aftereffects elicits a queasily visceral response in me that tends to distract from an entirely fair and balanced appraisal. Perhaps that will change on another viewing, when I’m not inwardly – and outwardly – squirming every time Brendan Gleeson’s progressively more numerous stumps enter shot.
I’ve seen the picture’s premise – tired of the company of his best friend, Colm’s Brendan Gleeson warns him he will cut off a finger every time the latter talks to him, and does just that – called out as unbelievable. At least one review, from the eternally-49 Jeffrey Wells, has decried the picture as a result (ironic, as it bears nary a trace of his much-hated woke across its duration. Sample comment: “A woman next to me was chuckling all through it. I finally turned and looked at her with annoyance”). It’s more than evident, however, that Brendan Gleeson’s Colm is far from the most balanced of fellows; I had much more trouble with suspending disbelief that he was still alive and walking around without critical blood loss or infection, quite beside what must be an extraordinarily high pain threshold. I also found it a little surprising that Colm opted to leave his house after Pádraic (Farrell) set it alight, as a crispy end would surely have been the answer to all his burdens. But again, he isn’t firing on all cylinders.
Colm does have a point. Pádraic is dull (but nice), and McDonagh opts to end the picture just as he’s becoming interesting, announcing a vendetta – escalation occurs rapidly with severed digits piling up and the demise of a beloved miniature donkey following its attempt to ingest one of said offending extremities – and telling Colm they’d only have been quits if he’d stayed in the cottage. The Wiki summary has it that Colm is genuinely intending to join Pádraic in the pub following the first finger incident, until Pádraic tells him about the music student he scared off, but I must admit I didn’t read the scene that way. I saw the parting admission as simply the icing on the cake; it was quite clear throughout the conversation that Pádraic wasn’t listening and was only making things worse in a further-dismemberment-forthcoming department before that.
There’s a level, of course, whereby one can view Colm’s action as purely fabular, formed around the ideas McDonagh wishes to explore. Of self-expression, of freedom and its oft-illusory nature.* Throughout, he’s emphasising the extraordinarily idyllic environs of the fictional, titular isle (the first shot features a rainbow) that turn to ashes as the personal grievances burgeon and blossom. The escalation makes the atmosphere unbearable, shining a spotlight on every little tangential upset or discord.
Pádraic’s gloom affects sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon, superb – the scene where Siobhán lets Dominic down might be the best in the movie), highlighting every long-sufferance accepted as a matter of the way things are and how it isn’t really alright, actually. They’re middle-aged, sharing a bedroom, and much as she loves her brother, she acknowledges he is dull. She also, pointedly, highlights to Colm that, for all his high-falutin’ talk of art and legacy, he is dull too. Finally, she escapes, leaving the purported tranquillity for a mainland where war is raging – the 1923 setting is during the Irish Civil War, its sounds carrying across the channel at night – because it’s less toxic and claustrophobic. This is a fertile and productive furrow ploughed by McDonagh, even if his grasping at with severed digits is customarily rough-hewn; you take your environment with you, and if you allow it to, the beatific can rapidly become disfigured and repellent.
The writer-director’s paralleling a war between Irish (a pair of factions) and a war between Irish (just a pair) for reasons that make little sense is clear. I’m unpersuaded there’s much to the allusion, however (so is it over-alluded or under-alluded, or just plain a bit clumsy?) More rewarding are the pointed questions on fulfilment and purpose. Siobhán sobs into her pillow when repulsive paedophile plod Peadar (Gary Lydon) tells her nobody likes her; she’s already been corrected by Colm, averring that she’s as dissatisfied as he is (because, by implication, her capacities are too great for the likes of Pádraic’s simple pleasures).
Her brother’s audible incomprehension regarding the mention of loneliness and the attentions of lovelorn island gumby Dominic – Barry Keoghan, not at all cast to type; the most anomalous thing in his career to date is Marvel casting him as a superhero – make it abundantly clear she cannot remain there, for the sake of her emotional and mental health. So she ups and leaves for a library job on the mainland. With regard to Dominic – and, at times with Pádraic in the later stages– McDonagh treads a very thin writerly line of switching between insight and ignorance (his “What is he, twelve?” in response to Colm’s behaviour, and very learnedly informing Pádraic that touché is a French word).
Siobhán’s existential angst is thus at the appreciable, empathetic end of the spectrum that McDonagh pumps to the max with Colm. While it may be easy to suggest they’re looking at an absence of spiritual/emotional solace in the wrong way, it is probably more accurate to conclude they’ve been denying their better impulses for so long, they’ve allowed them to reach crisis point. Colm still makes little rational sense as a person at the end, seemingly sobered by the vengeful turn in Pádraic’s character. He is now the one making overtures of amiability, a man who a couple of days earlier was paralytic in the pub, frenetically miming to music he could not play as he waved his bloodied stumps about.
The title refers to the tune Colm composes during the course of the movie, but it also suggests supernatural forces at work on the island; a conversation regarding their materiality takes place between Colm and Pádraic. These are personified – again, it’s McDonagh at his least subtle, a tendency that perhaps becomes more harshly exposed due to this outing’s contemplative tone – in Mrs McCormick’s cowled harbinger/prophetess of doom (she’s frequently referenced as a ghoul), taking seeming glee in the prospect of ill coming to the isle. She foretells death as a banshee might, albeit minus the wailing, and comes on like a reject from a Bergman film.
Also of note is David Pearse’s priest, apoplectic when Colm alludes he might be fiddling with the altar boys; occasions such as this see The Banshees of Inisherin muster the kind of fiery, infectiously funny spleen that makes McDonagh’s works so relishably raucous when he’s on a roll. But he’s consciously shackling himself here, reaching for something more overtly defined through the measured pacing, and the despair and sense of dread that seeps through the proceedings. One might suggest the film is more self-consciously aspiring to greatness in that sense, and that this design ironically makes it a lesser beast to In Bruges (and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film that seems to have taken a retrospective battering, possibly by those uneasy over what it may or may not be saying, such that they’d rather avoid identifying themselves as supporting such a “position” by association).
Farrell and Gleeson both deliver expectedly sterling performances, but the picture keeps its distance from Colm’s interior state by design, largely following the dim and befuddled Pádraic on his way. At times, this means we’re hanging on the kind of unadulterated ineptitude of a protagonist from a Farrelly Brothers movie, but Farrell mostly carries off the necessary mode of sympathetic bafflement.** It looks like The Banshees of Inisherin is destined to be a Best Picture Oscar contender, and while severance of limbs has been no disincentive to awards recognition in the past, a degree of optimism was also part of the deal (The Piano). Regardless of the ceremony’s final announcement, with the current state of cinema and the Academy scrabbling about for potential nominees, it would be little surprise if it stands out as the pick of the pack.
*Addendum 13/02/23: I’ve seen the film’s thematic content compared to Tár, on the basis that both concern themselves with valuing the production of art over kindness towards one’s fellows (the comments section here), and that’s certainly valid.
**Addendum 13/02/23: It’s funny, I was thinking while watching this “Doesn’t Colin look different?” but decided I couldn’t suggest every Hollywood actor in every review was no longer the real deal. So I didn’t. Turns out Farrell’s no longer with us.