In the interest of managing expectations it should be noted that The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to 2017 awards darling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, does not feature any shrieking spirits of Irish folklore. Instead, it’s another acerbic, dangerous, darkly amusing, and heartbreakingly sad character drama from a modern master of shifting tones.
Something of an In Bruges reunion, the film reunites McDonagh with his debut’s two leads, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. It’s set in 1923 on Inisherin, a fictional island off Ireland’s west coast. Farrell’s Pádraic is “one of life’s good guys”: the caring brother of Kerry Condon’s sophisticated Siobhan, dutiful keeper of several farmyard animals and best friends with Gleeson’s more cultured Colm.
Or so he thinks. As the film opens, Colm puts an abrupt end to their friendship for seemingly nebulous reasons. Baffled by such unexpected and cruel rejection on an island where drinking and chatting are the primary pastimes, Pádraic persists, eventually leading Colm to lay down a drastic ultimatum: every time Pádraic speaks to him he’ll cut off one of his own fingers with a pair of shears.
It’s McDonagh’s typically twisted take on the breakup movie, smartly set at a time and place where such a fracture must be confronted head on. A quieter, slower moving, and far less self-consciously cool affair than any of his three features to date, it’s a film with deep empathy for both sides in the breakup. What starts as an unkind, but eventually understandable, act soon spirals drastically out of control as McDonagh maneuvers his pawns with the precision of a seasoned playwright.
Though wholly distinct from the abandoned third play in his Arran Islands trilogy, which once shared the same title, it’s a story you could picture working just as well on stage. The locations are limited, interactions are largely confined to rhythmically poetic exchanges of dialogue and there’s even an old crone who ominously delivers portents of doom, like a Weird Sister lost in another Celtic country. But with cinematographer Ben Davis, McDonagh imbues the film with cinematic scope thanks to the stunningly rugged backdrop of Achill and Inishmore islands, which double for the fictional Inisherin.
Farrell and Gleeson are predictably brilliant - especially the former, who taps into some of the same wounded-puppy energy as In Bruge’s Ray. Farrell’s Bat-verse co-star Barry Keoghan also lends scene-stealing support as the son of an abusive copper who befriends Pádraic, the actor’s fidgety mannerisms and hilariously erratic line deliveries making a minor role entirely unforgettable.
Less successful are parallels with the Irish Civil War, which strive for profundity but ring hollow. Visible from Inisherin, the infighting never makes its way to the island. Instead the war of words between Colm and Pádraic acts as a microcosmic mirror to the bloodshed playing out on a larger scale on the mainland – a device both too obvious and too clumsy for a storyteller as adept as McDonagh.
This misstep aside, The Banshees of Inisherin is another wildly accomplished outing for McDonagh. And though it’s unlikely to achieve the box office and awards success of Three Billboards, McDonagh has made another film worth – if not shrieking – at least shouting about.
The Banshees of Inisherin reaches cinemas October 21. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.