Martin McDonagh, writer and director of The Banshees of Inisherin, clearly understands the nature and allure of foreign travel, not the kind one experiences when passing through on a tour bus, gazing out smudged windows and spending a weekend at an inn, but when one intends to stay a spell and get to know an unknown land.
Banshees opens in a literal fog, which clears to unveil a stunning island landscape, the crooked verdant fields of Inisherin in 1923, with the hills of Ireland just across the shimmering bay, the distant gunfire of the Irish Civil War in the air. McDonagh takes his time to settle us in, to intrigue us with these vistas that hint at all we don’t know about where we are. But soon enough there’s Padraic (Colin Farrell) tending to his farm, a simple man leading a simple life in his ragged stone homestead with his sister, Siobhan (the remarkable Kerry Condon) and his prized miniature donkey, who has the run of the place.
Padraic arrives at the local pub promptly at two in the afternoon, as he always does, to meet his long-time best friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson). But with Guinness in hand, Colm calmly tells Padraic that he wants to be left alone. And not just for now. For good. Forever. And Padraic, like a child hearing something entirely beyond his years, simply doesn’t understand. So Colm explains, “I just don’t like you no more,” to which Padraic counters with unfettered innocence: “You do like me.”
Colm is an artist of a sort, serious about his fiddle playing, and composing a lyrical piece that he hopes will outlive him, that will come to be the mark he’s left on this world. He feels time slipping away, time he is no longer willing to waste with Padraic and his “aimless chatter.” But who is Padraic if not that guy who has a stout with his good mate Colm at the pub at two in the afternoon? How can that not be? As Padraic reels, powerless, his sense of self in jeopardy, Colm maintains unwavering commitment to his decision. He never wants to talk with Padraic again. And when Padraic, in the coming days, just can’t let him be, Colm threatens bodily harm, not to Padraic, but to himself: he’ll cut off one of his own fingers every time Padraic bothers him.
Inisherin is certainly a land foreign in both time and place, with simple, rugged lives being lived out in a barren, harsh landscape. The island’s remoteness, isolated even from a war raging just across the way, adds an unseen pressure to these men’s widening rift. Colm feels trapped in his own life, neither able to leave nor continue on, to drift from pint to pint. And the island’s small-town insularity with its attendant gossip lays down on Padraic a doleful humiliation as he unabashedly makes his bid to win back his friendship. Their “rowing” sends shockwaves across the small island as townspeople watch to see the drama unfold, unable and unwilling to turn away.
The film’s ingenious emotional arrangement is that each of these men is equally blind to the other’s deepest desires. The true foreign realm of Banshees, into which McDonagh lures us with measures of warm humor to hold the specter of violence at bay, is the universally foreign landscape of the human heart where some fissures can never be bridged. The film's leads partnered more than a decade ago also under McDonagh’s direction in In Bruges, and the delightfully poignant tension of their on-screen chemistry is once again on display here, as the actors build off each other amid the dastardly conflict.
The years of friendship are set deep in Padraic and Colm’s bones. Farrell, in what may be his most accomplished film performance, draws our sympathy with such ease. All he wants is to have his friend back. But as the dark territory of their rift gradually comes to light, we know something lost will not be found again. And part of the sad-but-true humanity of Banshees is that we sense that ending in a way Padraic cannot because he is baffled by the entire notion of art. What it is. What it’s for. It holds no meaning for him. Not the beautiful folk music Colm creates. Not his sister’s reading of books. What a terrible divider that is. And Colm’s newfound need to fight against the flow of everyday dullness, to find a spark of life in his music, is so fully embodied by Gleeson, his hulking frame, his determination, an easy match for the stiff winds that blow down Inisherin’s dusty roads.
So why can’t Padraic just give way to Colm and his music and his fear of dying “with nothing to show for it?” If Padraic doesn’t understand, well...he should. And what’s more, he’s annoying, gratingly insistent, and boring, as his sister assures him all men are. But there’s a refrain about Padraic. He’s nice. Proud to be nice. And he’s steadfast. Measured by a more earthbound yardstick, couldn’t that be enough? Shouldn’t it? And for all of Colm's admirable ambition to create some future legacy, there’s a stubborn selfishness beneath his bluster, something damning in the melodrama of his extremeness. He’s willing to pay a reckless price in the here and now, knowing well how deeply he’s hurting Padraic, and even physically sabotaging himself, begging the question: What is the value of legacy if, in its pursuit, we scorn those who presently love us?
It’s not so much that their conflict is complicated. It’s more like two armies who can’t agree on what they’re fighting for, and fight all the harder for it. We so want these two men to be free of each other, to find their own paths, even as we know that their fates are bound. And this sense that the inevitable will come no good is echoed in a sidebar story of wildly unrequited love between the none-too-bright Dominic (a guileless, poignant Barry Keoghan) and Siobhan, which ends in a single scene that unfolds like a Shakespearian play in miniature: another tiny fulsome tragedy of the heart.
The best movies, big or small, aren’t actually an escape. Their lasting power, their magic trick, is in the way they pull us into a world that seems at first familiar but turns out to be quite foreign, something we didn’t expect, something to learn from, something to talk about when the lights come up. They draw us in by telling a story we think we know, but don’t. It’s like adventuring into a genuinely new land, where by nature we try to hold onto the safety of the familiar but eventually, bravely, give ourselves over to the unknown, immerse ourselves in it, because that’s why we came in the first place.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a discomforting movie. It doesn’t pull its punches. It’ll make you squirm because of just how unfamiliar, how absurd, how treacherous its central battle becomes but also, in truth, because of the all-to-familiar territory it pushes into. In the end, it's a fairy tale about the fear of being abandoned by someone you love, and it brilliantly casts its spell.
Upcoming Local Screenings of Banshees of Inisherin:Moviehouse in Millerton: December 6-7
Upstate Films Starr Theater in Rhinebeck: December 7-8
Upstate Films Orpheum Theater in Saugerties: December 9, 10, 11, and 14
Crandell Theatre in Chatham: December 9-11, 15-18
Rosendale Theatre in Rosendale: December 11, 14