The Gleeful Cynicism of The Banshees of Inisherin

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson make the best, bloodiest frenemies.

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson squinting at each other over beers in "The Banshees of Inisherin"
Searchlight Pictures

Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is technically about the collapse of a friendship, but as with much of the writer-director’s work, the straightforward premise belies a far knottier core. Set in 1923 on a fictional island off the coast of Ireland, his latest film is at once a fable about masculinity, a portrait of small-town life, and a treatise on the cruelty of isolation. It’s bleak and brutal—and deeply affecting.

Colin Farrell stars as Pádraic, a sweet but dull dairy farmer content to spend his days greeting townsfolk with his cherished donkey, Jenny, and grabbing a pint every afternoon with his best friend, the reserved Colm (played by Brendan Gleeson). When Banshees begins, however, Colm has decided the relationship cannot go on. He feels like he’s been wasting his time entertaining inane chats with Pádraic about Jenny’s feces. Instead, he wants to focus on creating some semblance of a legacy by composing a fiddle tune. And thus, the older man abruptly drops the younger from his social circle, leaving Pádraic bewildered, then upset, then, eventually, enraged. The fracture between the two is simultaneously terrifying and ludicrous: Colm tells Pádraic he’ll cut off one of his own fingers every time Pádraic bothers him. In other words, suffering the loss of an appendage is preferable to suffering another minute of Pádraic’s company.

Many of McDonagh’s films involve such scenes, during which you’re unsure whether to laugh or wince, support one character over the other, or cheer on anyone at all. There’s never a right answer. His brand of tragicomedy is ruthless, and Banshees is particularly mean. Given its small scale and lyrical dialogue, the movie may bring to mind McDonagh’s early work as a playwright. It’s a triumph of the same kind of harsh minimalism that fueled his shows. The project also marks the director’s reunion with Farrell and Gleeson; they last worked together on the gleefully vicious 2008 film In Bruges. Banshees is a testament to the trio’s collaborative power and a peek into how a storyteller’s approach to his main creative themes—redemption and loneliness—evolves over time.

Even beyond their shared leads and mastermind, Banshees can in many ways be seen as a companion to In Bruges. Both movies focus on a relatively contained conflict between two characters who are trapped in a seemingly idyllic place and hold competing worldviews. In the case of Bruges, that clash is between a pair of hit men—Ray (Farrell), a miserable rookie, and Ken (Gleeson), a gentle old-timer—who are tasked with lying low after a job goes sideways. Like Pádraic and Colm, they have rigid moral codes and grand desires. Whether they’re assassins or average civilians, these men are all after a sense of self-worth and purpose beyond their day-to-day routine.

In both films, McDonagh asks an existential question: What is the point of living? Farrell’s characters expose the filmmaker’s shifting thinking. Ray spends much of In Bruges feeling guilty and suicidal, until he has a belated epiphany about changing his violent ways. Pádraic, however, has never pondered his life. When Colm starts pursuing a legacy, Pádraic is desperate to find his own direction. Channeling his heartbreak into vengeance against his ex-friend provides him, for the first time, with a goal.

Discovering a purpose, though, is not an escape from agony. Pádraic’s devotion to anger causes the town fool, perhaps his only other friend, to turn against him. Colm’s revelation—that he should produce art and do nothing else—is a path to pain. His plan for rejecting Pádraic, after all, is to cut off his own fingers, which would prevent him from writing music anyway. The search for existential meaning is self-destructive, McDonagh’s work ultimately concludes.

The only thing left to do, the director seems to suggest, is to accept that looking for meaning is an absurd act. Banshees runs on melancholy, but the dread is made humorous by the script’s rhythmic dialogue and the nuttiness of Inisherin, where people drink in cliffside pubs, and crave gossip and vulgarity. Pádraic and his sister, Siobhán (a steely Kerry Condon), live next to a woman who is so old that she might be a ghost, yet who remains animated enough to make horrible predictions about the locals. Farrell plays Pádraic’s sorrow as touching and pathetic at the same time, his voice threatening to reach an octave only dogs can hear, while Gleeson’s deadpan demeanor renders Colm’s fleeting moments of compassion even more striking in comparison. Neither character seems to grasp the fact that they’re caught in a holding pattern, destined to hurt and be hurt until, say, they have no fingers left. Their ignorance is key. This wouldn’t be a McDonagh film—a work of cynical wit and tender insanity, the kind you laugh and wince at in equal measure—if anyone succeeded in the end.