Reflecting on a career spent making movies and plays that have featured exploding cats, surprise decapitations, and other inventive acts of destruction, Martin McDonagh let out a rueful laugh. “I don’t think I ever set out to shock,” he told me. “Every single one of them just came out that way.” Since emerging as a playwright with The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1996, McDonagh has had a reputation for leaving audiences simultaneously screaming with laughter and shrieking with horror. His new film, The Banshees of Inisherin, is not without a few ghastly jolts—but by McDonagh’s standards, it’s a subdued, mournful story.
During our interview over breakfast, McDonagh was cheerful, almost impish, about his career arc and penchant for grisly surprises. “[Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri] doesn’t have much … well, when [one major character] kills himself. Oh, and, well, there’s a guy getting chucked out the window,” he cackled. I reminded him that the movie also includes the firebombing of a police precinct. “But I do feel like Banshees is quietly sad, and I like that,” McDonagh said, adding that when he rewatches his first film, In Bruges, he likes it for its sadness more than its coolness: “I think I’m trying to get all the coolness out of my movies.”
For years, McDonagh has been on the bleeding edge of cool, especially in the world of theater, where his ink-black comedies about terrorism and totalitarianism often set him apart. The Banshees of Inisherin, his first movie set in Ireland’s remote western islands (a location of many of his plays), is more of a melancholy ballad. It follows a soured friendship between the cheerful but dim Pádraic Súilleabháin (played by Colin Farrell) and the more tortured, artistic Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), who summarily tells Pádraic one morning that he no longer wants to be pals. Over the course of the film, Pádraic’s initial bafflement curdles into resentment, and Colm’s attempts to stay away from him in their tiny community fail repeatedly.
The film takes place in the early 1920s, with the Irish Civil War playing out in the background—an occasional explosion on the mainland is visible from Inisherin, but it’s always greeted with tuts from the isolated inhabitants. “You don’t need any knowledge of Irish history,” McDonagh told me of the film. “All you need to know, really, is that [the civil war] was over a hairline difference of beliefs which had been shared up until the year before. And it led to horrific violence. The main story [of Banshees] is that, too: negligible differences that end up, well, spoiler alert, not in a good place.”
That metaphor informs what might be McDonagh’s best cinematic work—better even than In Bruges, his scorching debut that featured the first pairing of Farrell and Gleeson. There, they played a pair of bickering hitmen sent to the scenic Belgian town after an assassination gone wrong; their chemistry is palpable, shifting between sibling-like antagonism and parent-child affection from minute to minute. In Banshees, McDonagh reunites the pair only to break them up in the first scene—a delectable bit of cruelty for the audience.
When production began, McDonagh asked his stars whether they wanted to rehearse separately and generally be more Method in how they interacted when not shooting—in other words, whether they wanted to sustain their characters’ rift in real life. “And they were both like ‘Ah, we’re actors. We’ll act it,’” McDonagh said. “The joy of being together was something they didn’t want to get in the way of.” That shared joy translates beautifully on-screen. Although viewers never see flashbacks to Pádraic and Colm’s friendship, their sundered bond comes across clearly; even other townspeople, such as the cheeky gossip Dominic (Barry Keoghan) and Pádraic’s canny sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon), fret over the feud and whether it will ever end.
“The [idea] was to tell a truthful breakup story—as sadly and humanely, or horrifyingly, as that can be,” McDonagh said. “There’s a gentility to [the film], which I like, and I definitely think that’s the way my films have been progressing.” When I asked if he’s mellowing as a storyteller, he referenced his second movie, Seven Psychopaths—a meta-textual, L.A.-set crime comedy starring Farrell that’s filled with gunplay and double crosses. “I was kinda trying to be Tarantino cool. And I’ve so gone off that whole idea anyway,” he said.
These days, he sees himself as a more grown-up, maybe more European filmmaker: “I love American films more than most European ones, but I love the sadder, weirder American ones.” McDonagh was being self-deprecating, but many critics have noted a more hyperactive strain to his works set in America, including Seven Psychopaths and his play A Behanding in Spokane. His previous film, Three Billboards, won two Oscars and critical acclaim, but its portrayal of life in the rural U.S. was critiqued by some as simplistic. His return to the Irish islands, where much of his best work is set, is a bracing delight, partly because McDonagh does seem liberated from any need to be “Tarantino cool.”
He insisted that making another Irish film wasn’t a conscious choice, and that this script was simply the best one he came across. The Banshees of Inisherin was the name of a play McDonagh scrapped long ago—although, he said, this film shares nothing with it but the title. “I always liked that old title, and I wanted to finish off this vague trilogy of island plays, of which The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Cripple of Inishmaan were the other two,” he told me. Though wildly different, both plays are about islanders yearning for excitement and fulfillment beyond their cloistered lives, and Colm’s motivation for pushing Pádraic away in Banshees is similar. A musician, Colm professes himself a creative soul whose growth has been stifled by spending all day jawing at the pub with his friends.
McDonagh admitted that he has somewhat divided his own personality between his two lead characters. Pádraic “is closer to me in a lot of ways. Kind of a nice guy, not too smart, just wants a nice happy life … one’s instinct is to be with [him], the brokenhearted nice guy,” he said. “But then, it can’t all be on his terms. You have to give [Colm] equal weight … He’s being overly mean, but he’s doing it all for art.” As much as the director sees himself in sweet Pádraic, Colm’s fear of mortality and need to make more music echoes McDonagh’s restlessness. “I’m 52. You start thinking, Am I wasting time? Should I be devoting all my time, however much is left, to the artistic?” he said. “That’s something that’s always going on in my head—the waste of time, the duty to art, all that. So you start off being on [Pádraic’s] side and understanding the hurt, but you have to be completely truthful to the other side … You should feel conflicted.” McDonagh clearly does.
Although he’s often shared his unease with the elitism of the theater world, he wouldn’t rule out a return to that medium. At the same time, he sounded anxious about the long gap between Banshees and his last film. “After COVID, I thought, Five years is a bit lazy. I’m literally the laziest filmmaker in the world. You do need valid time in between to come up with something. But I do feel like I should speed up a little bit,” he said. “I’m going to try and concentrate on films a bit more, but if a play story comes up, I’ll do that too … [But] if you’ve got 20 years left or whatever, do you want to do 20 films, or 20 plays that just disappear?” McDonagh’s work, whatever the medium, isn’t at any real risk of vanishing. But that fear may be the key to his next reinvention.