It’s fascinating to think that writer/director Martin McDonagh’s last film was released over half a decade ago. With seven Oscar nominations under its belt, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was hailed as masterful across the board. McDonagh sets the devastating drama in the small titular town, shining a light on the earth-shattering events of everyday life. Now gone are the soft prairies of middle America, with McDonagh instead setting his latest, The Banshees of Inisherin, on the sprawling cliffs of a fictional island off the coast of Ireland, where there are seascapes and vast fields of nothingness as far as the eye can see. Yet to the people there, who are not immune to small town gossip, it’s home. For better or worse, nothing remains a secret for long. So, when long-time friends Pádraic and Colm have a mysterious falling out, all of Inisherin seems to play a part in this comical tragedy.
As Colin Farrell’s Pádraic walks along the beach to visit his friend Colm, gunfire and cannons from the Irish Civil War taking place on the mainland sound off in the background. When Pádraic arrives, Colm – played by Brendan Gleeson – pays no attention to his friend of many years, even as the knocking on his window becomes incessant, prompting Pádraic to head to the local pub alone. When the patrons and bartenders question why the two aren’t together, a nagging sensation begins to fester within Pádraic; could he have said or done something offensive in a drunken stupor? Within minutes, McDonagh has set the stage for the rest of his story to unfold with a confident, yet hysterical tone. In this brilliant pairing of the two actors, Farrell and Gleeson play off one another subtly yet powerfully, as the duo’s friendship continues to devolve. The utterly devastated Pádraic simply cannot fathom the breakdown of this friendship, while the stoic Colm tells it as it is: he is simply looking for a bit of peace.
Where The Banshees of Inisherin excels is in how it reveals its layers to the audience. From tackling the cost of being an artist to the harmful effects of not properly addressing one's mental health, McDonagh’s film is nothing if not rich for discussion. On an even deeper level, this film seems to be grappling with existentialism: what are all of the good times worth if they will eventually be forgotten by everyone? When the question of what a legacy is genuinely worth arises, it is in the stunning performances of the two leads that the answer may hope to be found. It’s here that Farrell takes full advantage of the razor-sharp script. As he tries to come to terms with how his lifelong friend could dismiss his very existence, Pádraic becomes fixated on the seemingly inexplicable nature of the entire situation. It forces him into a deep state of reflection that only further highlights his life’s tragedies. Yet somehow, he is also able to remain comedic and offer a wonderfully nuanced performance, rich with emotion. One can’t help but feel for Pádraic as his small world begins to crumble around him. And, to be paired with Gleeson’s almost apathetic performance is only an added blessing for both actors and audience. Deeply melancholic, Gleeson’s is the type of performance that is the antithesis of flashy, but viscerally effective. As he bares his soul to a priest, which becomes perhaps the funniest confessional since Fleabag, the contemplative Colm breaks open to the audience. Most importantly, however, is that there is clearly still a swath of emotion hidden behind Gleeson’s yearning eyes. It’s here that the film is most compelling.
To be a creator of any kind takes an immense toll on one’s life, both physically and mentally. It forces somebody to forever alter who they could have been, whether they consciously realize it or not. The sacrifices that one must make are frightening to think about, resulting in a profoundly dramatic film. To be delivered in such a quietly powerful way should be treasured. Yet, learning more about Colm makes something abundantly clear: his struggle extends far beyond wanting to create. Instead, the film forces Pádraic to grapple with how to help a friend suffering in deep despair. Sure, it is wholly understandable why everyone would like to leave something tangible behind in this world; it makes the whole concept of death a bit easier to digest. But, is having a song being sung by strangers 100 years from now worth living a life of isolation? They will know you existed, but existing is far different than living. As love is confessed and sacrifices are made, chords will surely be struck with the audience. This film serves as a cautionary tale at times, but on the whole, it is a damningly realistic portrayal of the toll one’s struggle can take on the lives of everyone around them. The Banshees of Inisherin, at its very core, is a harrowing film. It shows how easily people become trapped within themselves and the search for a larger purpose in life, but also how important it is to have a support system willing to stand by amidst it all.
Searchlight Pictures will release The Banshees of Inisherin in theaters on October 21, 2022.