The year is 1923, and a civil war wages on Irish soil. The country won independence from British rule the year prior, but conditions of the truce have motivated former brothers in arms to take up rifles against one another and shed more blood.
And off the coast of County Galway, another civil war wages on the island of Inisherin, this one between Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) and Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson). The two are old drinking buddies, and every afternoon, Pádraic follows Inisherin’s famine walls down to the sea, where he collects Colm for a pint at the pub. But one day, Colm doesn’t answer. He’s sitting inside, smoking, but he makes no acknowledgment of Pádraic’s presence at the door. Flummoxed, Pádraic returns home to his sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), who wants to know if they’ve been rowing. Pádraic doesn’t think so, but once the rest of the town wonders if they’ve been rowing, Pádraic starts to think they’ve been rowing.
Well, they haven’t, but they are now. I won’t reveal the reason for Colm’s cold shoulder, but it is both incredibly petty and perfectly understandable. It’s also not very nice, and Pádraic might be the nicest man in Inisherin—a little simple, sure, but an all-around decent guy. Not that that’s stopping Colm from extricating himself from Pádraic’s orbit, a task easier said than done. Inisherin is a small island with a smaller population, and turning your back on one raises questions. You know the phrase, “cut off one’s nose to spite to one’s face”? Yep, it’s a lot like that.
Written and directed by Irish playwright cum filmmaker Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin is his first feature set on his home turf and his first to feel like a play brought to the screen. Sometimes that phrase can be used to slight a film, but not here. The Banshees of Inisherin features the types of quiet conflicts and spectacular writing that don’t always make it to the silver screen. Cinema is a bombastic medium, and McDonagh’s previous works—In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—contain volume fitting of a 40-foot screen. All three are good, but Banshees is better. It’s quieter, more thoughtful, and beautifully rendered. The speaking roles are limited to about 10 players, four or so locations, and a conflict encompassing everyone without overreaching. The cinematography from Ben Davis is stunning (an early shot of Colm sitting in his home smoking and not talking to Pádraic features sunshine filtering through the window in an image befitting a Vermeer), and Carter Burwell’s score, laced simply and touchingly throughout, brings an Old World romance with a touch of melancholy.
This might be due to Banshees’ roots in the stage rather than the screen. McDonagh reportedly wrote the stage play of Banshees some time ago as the finale in his Aran Islands trilogy (The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore being the first two), but it remained unpublished and unproduced.
I do not know what resemblance that Banshees has with this Banshees, other than I know I prefer this one regardless. It’s a mature work, one where McDonagh realizes that a microcosm can say more than an entire war. And that the movie carries as many laughs as it does, not to mention the sheer pleasure of keenly written dialogue, only makes a gorgeous experience all the more enjoyable. In real life, Ireland’s troubles were just beginning, but McDonagh finds a way to bring peace. François Truffaut was right: “Cinema is an improvement on life.”
The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
Produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, David Pearse, Sheila Flitton, Jon Kenny, Bríd Ní Neachtain
Searchlight Pictures, Rated R, Running time 109 minutes, Opens Oct. 21, 2022.