You may have been cut loose by a friend at one time or another. I have, and I’ve been the one swinging the axe, though it’s the former perspective that interests me the most. What does it say about us when someone we like, even love, decides that our absence is the addition their life needs? The obvious pain belies the shame and regret, the self-doubt.
That’s the seed writer-director Martin McDonagh plants with “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a movie that watches intently as two men grasp at possibilities out of their reach, leading to insight through personal conflict and emotional destruction.
The film begins with Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a dairy farmer on the fictional Irish isle of Inisherin, unable to get his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) to join him for their daily pint. Pressing for an explanation, Colm informs his dumbfounded companion, “I just don’t like you no more,” spurning an attempted apology and his now-former friend along with it.
The unexpected severance of a male friendship, a virtually unexplored cinematic topic despite its real-life frequency, serves as a starting point from which McDonagh explores lives of deep loneliness and regret. Circumstances salt the wound, as Pádraic, a pleasant bore, now only has his spinster sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), his beloved miniature donkey, and the village idiot (Barry Keoghan) to keep him company. There’s only one pub, and while Pádraic initially tries to honor Colm’s verbal restraining order, watching him happily spend time with others is a relatable personal affront. Perhaps worse is the mixture of pity and disdain that his rejection inspires in the villagers.
And while Pádraic is obstinate in his refusal to leave things alone, Colm’s determination to rid himself of his former friend’s soporific chatter has its own vainglorious excess. He explains that no one will remember you being nice, but they remember Mozart’s genius. Spending hours each day listening to Pádraic is akin to a slow death in his eyes. Siobhán, the spinster, points out that he’s in the wrong place for intellectual stimulation and not as sharp as he fancies himself. When rejecting Pádraic, Colm bristles with the weary determination of a man honoring a commitment to himself, even as he takes it to an eccentric extreme: He declares that he’ll lop off one of his own fingers for each time Pádraic bothers him.
The rejection stirs an indignant rage in Pádraic that nearly mends their friendship before a thoughtless revelation makes the break irreparable. In their feud, it’s easy to recognize the way poor communication worsens problems that grow into hills to die on, where affection can almost immediately shift into hatred that dwarfs any fondness that once existed. The dynamic makes for an enthralling work that’s often blisteringly funny and as bleak as a gaze into the abyss.
Even as McDonagh’s script veers into fable territory, the complexity of the men’s relationship keeps us tethered to a raw emotional current. The way things shift into a roiling, violent bitterness has a tragic, unimpeachable logic. Like the sort of war that rages across the ocean, it proves difficult to stop or even de-escalate once things are done that can’t be undone.
The film’s primary stumbling block for its detractors is Colm’s threat, and, indeed, it’s a tremendous ask of the audience to accept that his solution involves self-mutilation. But the film works the necessary magic as a parable, and what occurs is so compelling one can accept Colm (and others) as principled rather than insane. Adding to the allegorical feel is the frequent sound of cannon fire drifting in from the visible mainland and the presence of a frightening elder woman who portends dire consequences ahead.
What a piece of work for Farrell, who has grown into one of the screen’s most soulful leading men. He wears his wounds with the visage of a man incapable of one more setback and desperate to avoid it. And Gleeson, who carries regret in such a way that his tenderest moments are also his cruelest, turns what could be a villain into someone who, depending on the moment, seems to be in the right. McDonagh’s script makes Colm complex, but Gleeson makes him capable of hurt.
As Siobhán, Kerry Condon – remarkable in roles big and small –brings a feminine perspective to the chaos that highlights the malignancy of the situation. She’s the smartest person on the island, not Colm, and it cuts deep when she informs Colm that he’s every bit as boring as everyone else there. And then there’s Barry Keoghan, in a key turn as a poor, abused young man whose utter lack of options contrasts painfully with Siobhán, who has the ability and the will to seek higher ground.
Pádraic seems unaware that, once one has offered an olive branch only to be swatted with it, one should bow out. It’s easy to miss that Pádraic, not the contemplative Colm, is the more implacable of the two. His status as both the victim and the one with more to lose means that he’s the one to root for even as one wants to implore him to pull back.
“Do you ever get the feeling you’re just entertaining yourself before the end?” Colm asks at one point, perhaps unaware of how incisive his observation truly is. Like life, the men’s feud becomes a testament to and a lamentation of how much they can withstand. McDonagh’s script is too good for it to be anything other than surprising when it ends, but what it leaves us with is profoundly, bitterly recognizable.