Despite the absurd hilarity present even in the trailer, there’s something incredibly profound at the heart of Martin McDonagh’s newest black comedy-drama, The Banshees of Inisherin (2022). Set in 1923 on a fictional Irish isle, it’s centered around Pádraic trying to figure out why his once-best friend, Colm, now refuses to speak to him. Like all good comedies, this film uses humor as a way of exploring complex themes ranging from male loneliness to the Irish Civil War, all without sounding didactic or stale. Instead, McDonagh’s dynamic achievement proves yet again that tragedy and comedy really do go hand in hand.
Something that stood out to me was the music, written by Carter Burwell. There’s a heavy focus on string instruments that helps add an almost surreal tone to some scenes. This emphasizes the ridiculousness of both Pádraic’s desperation as well as the lengths Colm goes to for some peace and quiet, which brings me to the actors.
In many ways, this film wouldn't have worked without the cast. To start with, Jenny the miniature donkey is adorable, and encapsulates how there’s a lot to be said regarding the way animals and nature operate in this film (that could be a standalone paper, so I’ll save it for a different day). Besides Jenny, Colin Farrell delivers yet another great performance in what has been a helluva year for him. Despite the fun he provided as Penguin in The Batman (2022), or his stunning work in After Yang (2022), Pádraic is easily one of his best characters to date. His timing, subtle expressions and vocal control result in a performance that’s as hilarious as it is heart-wrenching. Brendan Gleeson’s approach to Colm is much more calm, aloof even, which works given the psychology of his character: someone who feels like time is slipping away, and he has to focus less on socializing and more on his artistic legacy. Barry Keoghan’s Dominic is fun, tragic, and compelling. Finally: Kerry Condon’s Siobhán was one of my favorite performances this year. She captured her character’s emotional range and added another important layer of humanity to the film, drawing us further into a story so grounded in a specific time and place.
The first shot is an overhead view of the Irish landscape: rolling green pastures with small towns perched above the edge of the sea. There’s no doubt this is a film which draws a lot from its setting, including the history of that setting. Inisherin is in perfect view of the mainland, which, in 1923, was approaching the end of the Irish Civil war. There are a few moments throughout where this is referenced: sometimes by a policeman saying he’s going to pay to go see an execution, not caring whose side is being executed, other times we can see and hear canons and gunfire in the distance. This is yet another lens through which we can view this movie: as political allegory.
After reaching a ceasefire with England in the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), the Irish Free State was created on December 6th, 1922. Despite previous demands, the Anglo-Irish Treaty created a free state that would still be under the dominion of the British Empire. Some, being tired of war, were willing to accept this, while others fiercely rejected such neo-colonial arrangements. This led to a split in the nationalist movement, and civil war ensued. Because many on both sides had been close friends and comrades during the War of Independence, there was a deeply personal element to this split, much like the film’s main conflict.
There’s something to be said about Colm and Pádraic, once the best of friends, having a similar falling out that also reaches a tragic crescendo. One wants peace by any means, even self-mutilation, whereas the other believes there’s more to life, and is willing to fight for it. Colm starts to view his ex-friend as dull, not able to provide anything to help him grow as a person. Pádraic is distraught at what he feels is a deep betrayal, much like the nationalists who fought for a free Ireland must have felt towards those who were pro-treaty. Despite these rich undertones, the film manages to not be heavy handed, instead focusing on the human toll of such fallouts. In doing so, it gives us an intimate, hilarious watch that is delicate yet raucous, humorous yet tear-jerking. It’s truly one of the best things you can hope to see this year, I couldn’t recommend it enough! Catch The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) in a theater near you.