TEXAS, USA — For all its simplicity, the fictional island of Inisherin is a versatile place, cinematically speaking. Its intimidating cliffs measure up to Middle-Earth’s grandeur, its tiny shacks would make excellent horror film territory and if a Jane Austen adaptation has never made romantic use of this locale’s endless fields of green, the next one surely will.
It’s up to the people occupying this hunk of rock at any given time to decide what kind of place it is to be; whether to tremble at gathering stormclouds or eagerly anticipate the rainbow that will eventually form. That makes it a rather perfect arena for English writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a firebranded and fiendish entertainment whose absurdly simple setup – the sudden breakup of two lifelong chums, played by two actors at the top of their game – attempts to show how tragedy is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a grimly funny exercise in twisting the audience’s sympathies right back around on themselves, set in a place where daily routines are so dry that a stray spark could be cataclysmic.
Chronicling the seismic fallout of a ruptured brotherhood with biblical scale and the barbed-wire mania of a community that can only see how those on the Irish mainland sort out their issues when it’s going up in smoke, “The Banshees of Inisherin” – McDonagh’s most searing movie, if not his best – makes meaningful mockery out of masculine expectations. That this soul-scorcher of a tragicomedy's setting is as detached from genre cubby holes as it is from time underscores the universality of its social anxieties (to say nothing of how that anxiety has nowhere to go, what with the Atlantic on all sides). McDonagh, in ways perilous and riotous, lends humanity to the most inexplicable of conflicts that split us open even as we completely close ourselves off.
Here the battlemasters are Colin Farell’s Pádraic and Brendan Gleeson’s Colm, the latter of whom has suddenly decided that after years of meeting at the same pub at the same time of day for a glass of the same dark stout, he no longer has the time for such frivolities. Whatever warmth Colm had toward Pádraic has melted away overnight, shattering a normalcy and sending shockwaves through the island; the bartender looks on awkwardly as Pádraic desperately tries to get back into Colm’s good graces, and even the priest finds himself mediating in the most inappropriate of places.
McDonagh mines cleverness and sadness from the same well, reverse-engineering the duo’s fraternal history through the confusion of their acquaintances – “Are ya sure ya haven’t been rowin’’?” asks Pádraic’s sister, an incredible Kerry Condon – and a deeply unsettled mood that settles over the postcard-ready Inisherin when Colm delivers an ultimatum: Every time Pádraic insists on continuing to try and make up with him, he’ll snip a finger off.
What’s happened to Colm to inspire such drastic measures? “The Banshees of Inisherin” opens up when we find out, unveiling the existential concerns at its core while magnifying the sensitivity of Gleeson’s performance and the devastatingly feral notes in Farrell’s. The actors, who previously played across from each other in McDonagh’s “In Bruges,” have hardly been better, and they’re hardly better in “Banshees” than when they resemble two eternally carefree pals who woke up one day to find themselves stranded in the unpredictably violent world of adult concerns.
You can sometimes feel McDonagh straining to put a finer point on themes that are better off left unvarnished. But his richly drawn characters win the day, not in the least Barry Keoghan as Dominic, the town dolt who craves companionship for the sake of avoiding having to consider a life of isolation (funny, given where he lives already). Then again, any loss is a monumental one on Inisherin, where McDonagh’s emphasis on how little there already is allows his screenplay to flex its wit and bear down on the doom slowly closing in on all sides.
Sometimes he stumbles in that tonal dance; so impressive is his willingness to creep right up to the territory of farce that we hardly hold it against him on the few occasions that he finds himself in it. But more often than not McDonagh’s hand is strong on the rudder, and in the places where it counts. Where his “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” ended up stuck in some murky place between caricature and convincing, “The Banshees of Inisherin” backs up its most incredulous moments with a sobering, somber pace that reminds one there are souls at stake, not just the effectiveness of a punchline or the hundredth use of feckin’ (rest assured: it never grows stale).
As the movie goes on and tensions come to a full, bloody boil, the jubilant mood by which we were first introduced to Inisherin feels less like it’s indigenous to the island and more like a peace that’s been manufactured to maintain some semblance of interpersonal order. Thus one of McDonagh’s chief questions has been revealed to us: Is it better to live as our most honest selves when our most honest selves beckon chaos? We might take a cue from the pups and donkeys that seem to always be at our characters’ sides, and remember that the simplest course of action in moments of despair is to calmly observe that no one around us has struck a feckin' reliable deal with fate either.
"The Banshees of Inisherin" is rated R for language throughout, some violent content and brief graphic nudity. It's now in theaters, and releases on VOD on Dec. 13. Runtime: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
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