The Banshees of Inisherin takes place in 1923, on a little Irish island where life seems to amble along, like a pleasant stroll on a country road. As civil war rages on the mainland, the townsfolk of Inisherin regard the flash and boom of artillery like a distant thunderstorm. Even the local gossip laments the dearth of juicy information. For Pádraic (Colin Farrell), this casual quietude represents a broken-in comfort, made better with the passing of each day. At the same time, his best buddy Colm (Brendan Gleeson) feels a mounting dread, as if the remaining days of his life will be lost in a haze of frothy pints at the pub and meandering conversations about nothing.
This spiritual crisis sets the events of Banshees in motion. One day, Pádraic totters over to Colm’s cottage to round him up for their usual afternoon beer buzz. Strangely, Pádraic peeks in the windows to find his bestie has vanished. For a town built on routine, this is an alarming break in the status quo. Things get even worse when Colm turns up at the pub, all by his lonesome. Pádraic prods his newly-distant friend and receives an unsettling answer: Colm simply wants nothing to do with Pádraic anymore. Without warning, their friendship has been whisked away, like a ratty old bandaid.
As a man of sweet simplicity, Pádraic cannot properly process the news. He stumbles home, deeply bruised and utterly bewildered. Siobhan (Kerry Condon), Pádraic’s sister, roommate, and emotional guardian, tries to help make sense of Colm’s chilly behavior. Dominic (Barry Keoghan) attempts to fill the open role of drinking buddy, but he is a coarse, dim-witted young man. Both efforts prove to be in vain; Pádraic just will not accept that his best friend is permanently out of his life.
The resulting battle of wills alternates between off-kilter comedy and deep tragedy. Anyone who’s lived long enough has suffered the moldering of a friendship, and Pádraic struggles with the universal questions: Was it something I said? Was I wrong about what we had? Am I a fool? It doesn’t help that their billowing row falls under the insular, judgy gaze of a small town.
Banshees reunites writer-director Martin McDonagh with Farrell and Gleeson, his co-stars from In Bruges, and all three turn in Oscar-caliber work. McDonagh paints his quirky character study across a massive canvas, replete with David Lean-style panoramas of rolling hills and ocean waves. For all its quirky bursts of comedy and icky violence, Banshees is a work of visual magnificence. McDonagh and cinematographer Eigil Bryld should both snag Oscar nominations for their work here.
On that subject, Farrell will headline the list of nominations. He gives Pádraic an ill-fated blend of affability, naïveté, and obstinance, rendering his sturdy simplicity into something complex and unmanageable. No wonder, then, that Colm resorts to bizarre extremes to communicate his point. Gleeson, a reliably phenomenal actor, also does brilliant work as a cerebral, mannered musician who can’t contain his crumbling emotional core. The kooky, volatile interplay between these two gifted actors is the film’s biggest strength. (A close second would be McDonagh’s generous use of colorful Irish colloquialisms, although non-natives might need subtitles to catch them all.)
Praise must also be given to Condon and Keoghan for their supporting work. Siobhan and Dominic have had enough of Inisherin, although this physical and spiritual exhaustion manifests itself very differently for each. As Pádraic is the walking, talking embodiment of freewheeling life on Inisherin, Siobhan can’t help but regard him with equal parts of love and exasperation. (Likewise, it also explains Colm’s seething contempt.) Condon plays this delicate balance to note perfection. Meanwhile, Keoghan’s Dominic is a heartbreaking individial—a good-hearted kid who’s endured too much. As good as Farrell and Gleeson are, these two players are every bit as impressive.
Strangely, The Banshees of Inisherin is masterful, but it might not be for all tastes. I suspect some viewers won’t know what to make of it. Comedy and tragedy, love and loathing, hope and sorrow—they flow together in the same brick-brown river. As with all great films, McDonagh concludes his story by having the characters behave exactly as they should. Nothing bears the tidy perfection of a screenwriter. It’s defiantly undefinable, and I love that. This is one of the best films of the year.
114 min. R. HBOMax.