The Banshees of Inisherin ★★★1/2
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When nice is not enough
“It takes a village.” But it’s not the kind of village Hillary Clinton had in mind when she used the words as the title of her 2007 book. Located on a small island off the coast of Ireland, Inisherin is more like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it is Jimmy Stewart’s Bedford Falls. Beneath the charming, comfortable, and cinematically stunning surface—the majestic beauty of the Aran Islands dwarfs human existence—Inisherin is a dysfunctional and confining place, Irish playwright/director Martin McDonagh’s vehicle for exploring what it means to want more out of life than it seems able to provide.
The majestic beauty of the Irish Aran Islands is a backdrop to the quiet desperation of its inhabitants; here, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), the unmarried, sharp-tongued sister who lives a lonely existence with her brother.
The town has its “characters”—a policeman who buggers and beats his son, a priest who’s too engaged with petty issues to be the voice of God, a nasty shopkeeper whose life consists of accumulating, and trading in, gossip, and the unremarkable owner of the only pub, where much of the action takes place. There’s even a seer. But the story focuses on four main players and their very different, and conflicting, ideas of what it means to be content.
Dominic (Barry Keoghan, the terrifying teen of 2017’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), a version of the village idiot but not without a certain wisdom, wants something that is clearly beyond him (“there goes that dream,” he laments). The driven and unforgiving Colm (presented with seething intensity by Brendan Gleeson, who got his start with Samuel Beckett plays), by far the oldest of the four, plays the fiddle and writes songs, lives alone with his dog, and craves the creative isolation that is seemingly thwarted by the village’s social regimen. Attractive yet unmarried, and sharp-tongued with her island neighbors, Siobhan (Kerry Condon, in a finely calibrated portrait of contained frustration) lives in her books and unfulfilled ambitions while residing with her brother, Pádraic (an appropriately appealing, unassuming and naïve Colin Farrell, reunited with Keoghan from McDonagh’s “In Bruges” ), a proclaimed and self-proclaimed “nice” guy who takes care of the animals and looks forward to the daily “good chat” with his friend Colm that begins at 2 in the afternoon at the pub.
Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Dominic (Barry Keoghan) consider their fates
as they share a bottle on the cliffs of the island.
What’s a “good chat” to Pádraic has become an “idle chat” to Colm, for whom the “likeable” Pádraic has morphed into a touchstone for a quotidian satisfaction that Colm sees as incompatible with his desire to leave behind something significant when he dies—to live in memory through his music. As Colm says, “Niceness doesn’t last.” So there will be no more “chats” with Pádraic.
Colm’s decision turns the plot toward blood, gore, recrimination and revenge.
Colm’s decision to cease conversing with his old friend, and to enforce it with a promise at once extreme and absurd (akin to threatening suicide in order to get your way) turns the plot toward blood, gore, recrimination and revenge, while also serving to bring Pádraic into the existential fold. Convinced to this point that his niceness (and ignorance of Mozart or the concept of touché) was a virtue, he now faces the possibility that he’s a bit dull, or others may see him that way, a prospect, especially traumatic in a closed and intimate community, that cuts to the heart of his being—a self-realization that arguably is the film’s greatest tragedy. The other protagonists have “solutions” to their existential dilemmas, a way out. But who is Pádraic if his niceness is just dullness, or if, as things unfold, he ceases to be nice?
Colm's (Brendan Gleeson) steely rejection of Pádraic (Colin Farrell)
will have consequences.
The cinematography is breath-taking—in service to a bleak vision. McDonagh, whose trademark is black comedy, achieved universal acclaim (and the film 2 Oscars) for his "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017). “The Banshees of Inisherin” shares a taste of revenge and a touch of that comedy with “Three Billboards.” But McDonagh’s latest work is not for the faint of heart, too dark to win audience popularity contests. It’s a beautiful, lush, sometimes funny, sad commentary on the meaning of life.
“Banshees” resonates with the small-town desperation of Bruce Springsteen.
“Banshees” functions within a variety of traditions and genres, filmic and otherwise. It resonates with the small-town desperation of Bruce Springsteen (and John Cougar Mellencamp), and with the options and limitations informing the life choices of the protagonists of George Lucas’s high-school graduation film, “American Graffiti” (1973). As a psychological drama, it may have the most in common with “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), John Huston’s classic tale of 3 men, confined and isolated in the remote mountains of Mexico, unable to hold on to a common purpose, coming apart, with consequences at once tragic and deadly.
Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan
Countries: Ireland, United Kingdom, United States
Runtime: 114 minutes
Other Awards: 6 wins (including Best Actor for Farrell and Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival) and 4 other nominations, to date