An analogy, if you will. Mulholland Drive is to Hollywood as The Banshees of Inisherin is to bromance. Between the two, it’s hard to picture a more poisonous example of a cinematic valentine to their directors’ obsessions. In David Lynch’s case, it was the town which embraced and embodied the film industry. For Martin McDonagh, it’s platonic male love, especially the kind that goes bad.
We come into the history of Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) and Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) when the former heads to the latter’s home for their usual routine, only to find it’s been disrupted by Colm himself, who refuses to so much as glance in his direction, let alone speak to him.
This behaviour is baffling enough out of context, but there are plenty of indicators of just how close this odd couple once was. In their small Irish island community, complete separation would be difficult, but even the patrons of their local pub are the first to ask Pádraic where his other half is, albeit not quite in those words.
Pádraic’s first impulse is to apologize for whatever he may have done, then ask if it’s a joke, but finds to his dismay that his former friend is dead serious in his desire for their relationship to end, for reasons that are vague at best and incomprehensible to sweetly straightforward farmer Pádraic. Colm is undergoing the sort of existential crisis his demographic is prone to, and has concluded that the admittedly oblivious Pádraic is an obstacle to leaving his mark in the musical world. And his newfound contempt for him flows accordingly.
McDonagh is a master of sly cinematic tricks, and The Banshees of Inisherin may be the best work of an already long and fruitful career. Many a director has effectively utilized the natural beauty of an Irish landscape to various effect, but Colm may as well be drowning in it. And like many a drowning man, he’s pulling down his potential rescuer alongside him. Colm later reveals in the confessional that he’s suffering from despair, but it’s not the half of it.
The nature McDonagh magnificently captures with frequent collaborator and cinematographer Ben Davis, who has been enchanting audiences in the indie delights Tamara Drewe and The Debt as well as thundering MCU staples Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange, reveal the dark underbelly of the contemplative state such an environment can induce. Thinking about the sheer vastness of life can lift one to ecstasy, center us in peace, but can just as often result in despair. Much like in Midsommar, many a nightmare can unfold even more effectively in bright and sparkling daylight, especially when accompanied by blood-soaked religious morality. Isn’t a cult generally in the eye of the beholder?
History is generally a good indicator of how things will play out, and since Martin McDonagh is back in comfortable territory with Farrell after a somewhat misguided interlude, all signs strongly point to a cunning mixture of comedy and tragedy. But The Banshees of Inisherin is a far more devastatingly subtle indictment of the evil that men do than the more outlandish escapades of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. And Farrell’s close-cropped hair and almost puppyish vulnerability to the pain in Gleeson’s eyes make for a perfect storm, especially when we get a nasty reminder that even the most adorable canine has teeth.
Their small conflict is more obviously writ large in distant artillery echoes as the 1920s Irish Civil War does its bloody work. Obvious doesn’t always mean simple, however, since the more overt question of why Pádraic is unable to leave Colm alone is quickly buried by the unknowable nature of his counterpart. Colm believes he feels nothing for the man he wishes to leave behind, yet is willing to permanently mutilate himself for him, potentially removing the possibility of musical fulfillment and the alleged catalyst for the estrangement in the first place.
“The Banshees of Inisherin is a dire warning of how easily such spiritual starvation can devastate…”
That said, music and ambiance alike tend to feature a multitude of undertones thanks to Carter Burwell, who also has a long history with McDonagh, the Coen Brothers, and elsewhere. Holding back is a virtue, but with Burwell, loud never becomes grating.
Such an obsession with a very male brand of toxicity, even in the form of a compassionate cautionary tale rather than rigid Catholic culture McDonagh portrays with a lovingly critical eye as he pleads for an alternative, can also result in blind spots that remain out of focus, even with close attention. For Banshees, it means no girls allowed unless they fit neatly into designated categories that such a stark approach tends to breed.
Kerry Condon gets saddled with the more attractive option as Pádraic’s sister Siobhan, and she nearly steals the movie from those it’s primarily concerned with. She embodies the higher ground with her ambitions of a life beyond their small Irish island, her pleas for peace, and her ability to call out both men on their sheer insanity. That she remains unobjectified and free from outright violence herself is refreshing, but nevertheless flaws are a gift that remain withheld from her.
If Condon embodies woman at her caring best, Sheila Flitton is when men tend to find the gender most unknowable in old age, when they are unable to excuse bad behaviour by sexualizing it. As the elder Mrs. McCormick, Flitton creepily represents the titular forces that people tend to take refuge in when confronted with the inescapable horrors of death. She is as inhuman as the monsters that go bump in the night which we tend to pretend aren’t us, what with her silent, knowing stares, her air of sinister, lurking patience, and her unearthly predictions of an upcoming final end for one of the residents.
Everyone does their job so well, though, that it hardly breaks McDonagh’s elegiac meditation on how to live a life full of possibilities for both goodness and fulfillment. As it is, The Banshees of Inisherin is a dire warning of how easily such spiritual starvation can devastate, resulting in a bitter other side of the coin to everlasting love. When it curdles to hate, all that’s left is an unending toxic cycle of codependency for the ages.