As The Banshees of Inisherin begins, we see Pádraic (Colin Farrell) lope up a hill with an easy, assured gait, get to the home of his best friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson), and idly scratch the ears of the Border Collie who sits lazily at the front door. Even before it’s been confirmed, we can tell that Pádraic has made this same trek, scratched those same canine ears, and collected his friend to go to the pub in this exact same way every day for decades.
But today is different. Although Colm is home, he doesn’t respond when Pádraic shouts for him, leaving the younger of the two men a bit flummoxed. Ever the optimist, Pádraic quickly assesses that Colm is too deep in thought to be interrupted—and he shouts that he’ll order him a pint and meet him there.
There’s no question where Pádraic is going. The (made-up) Irish island of Inisherin has exactly one pub, one church, and one post office. And Colm’s no-show hasn’t just disrupted Pádraic’s day, it has sent the entire town into a bit of a tizzy. Everyone who sees Pádraic looks incredulous. “Where’s Colm?” he is asked, again and again. “Are you two rowing?”
“I don’t think we’re rowin’?” says Pádraic. “Are we rowin’?”
(The rhythmic, repetitive Irish dialect gives the film a Beckettian sense of absurdity.)
Pádraic is so flustered he decides to go back to Colm’s house to check on him. But now his friend is gone. And when he returns, Colm is at the bar, chatting with the bartender, drinking a pint that he bought for himself. What’s more, he tells Pádraic to go away, that he doesn’t want to be his friend anymore.
“I just don’t like you anymore,” Colm says matter-of-factly.
In our modern, digital world, we call this ghosting—when you decide that the best way to extract someone from your life is to simply cut them off. But how does one “ghost” their lifelong best friend, in a town so small that all its residents can fit into the same small parish on Sunday? This is the question at the heart of writer-director Martin McDonagh’s pitch-perfect black comedy, which mines the situation for as much humor and pathos as possible.
The look on Pádraic’s face—a cautious smile when he thinks his friend is joking that fades into an expression of pure, child-like hurt—will break your heart. Indeed, Pádraic is a man leading an unexamined life, who is content to dote on his animals, especially his favorite dwarf donkey, Jenny, hang out in companionable silence with Colm, and eat dinner with his “spinster” sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon) until his dying days. For sure, he’s not a man who thinks about death either—or much of anything. He’s what you call one of life’s happy warriors.
Colm, however, is having something of an existential crisis. He suddenly realizes that the clock is ticking on his mortality and he hasn’t contributed anything of value to the world. A fiddler, he believes that he has the capability to write the kind of beautiful music that will withstand the test of time. What’s more, he sees Pádraic as a living, breathing symbol of a wasted life—all those hours sitting and drinking and exchanging insipid small talk. The thought fills him with fear and loathing.
Still, Pádraic can’t wrap his brain around what is happening. He refuses to take no for an answer—essentially harassing Colm until the older friend makes a drastic threat. He tells Pádraic that he will cut off a finger on his left hand—his violin fingering hand—every time Pádraic tries to contact him. And he means it.
It’s an absolutely baffling gambit: To cut off his own fingers is to take away the very thing he now claims to live for. What’s more, he’s not hurting Pádraic by doing this, only himself. Indeed, he is counting on the kindness of his old friend to do the right thing. What’s he not counting on is Pádraic’s denseness. The whole town knows that Colm isn’t bluffing—but Pádraic isn’t convinced.
McDonagh’s film is about many things: It’s about the perils of living in a small town, where Sartre’s notion of hell being other people is brought into high relief. There’s a young man in the town named Dominic (Barry Keoghan) that is too loud, too rough, a bit simple. Pádraic doesn’t really want to be his friend—he needs to believe that he is smarter, higher in the town’s pecking order. It worries him to think that he and Dominic are perceived the same way. (When Dominic casually uses the word “touché” a touch of anxiety crosses Pádraic’s face. If Dominic is smarter than he is, where does that leave him?). So, as cruel as Colm’s behavior might seem, miniature versions of that kind of smalltown hierarchy are played out every day. (There is also a scary old crone, a soothsayer of sorts, that everyone literally hides from.)
The film is also about two ways of living life—the examined life and the unexamined one. Or as Pádraic and Colm might put it—a choice between being nice and leaving an artistic legacy. (For what it’s worth, Colm is a decent fiddler—that’s Gleeson himself playing the violin—but certainly doesn’t seem to have any kind of transcendent talent.) Pádraic prides himself on being nice. And, forced to sum up his life’s philosophy thanks to his friend’s unusual behavior, he states that he believes that niceness—living in the here and now, being good to the people whom we encounter—is far more valuable than striving for some sort of immortality. It’s an argument worth pondering.
Finally, the film is about men and their repressed feelings and their silly, stupid wars. It’s the early 1920s and an actual war is raging across the sea. As absurd, sudden, pointless, and ultimately tragic as the impasse between Pádraic and Colm is, so, too, is the useless, endless war in Ireland.
The performances are remarkable. In one of the film’s saddest scenes, Dominic’s father, a bully cop, beats up Pádraic. Colm sees his former friend and gently helps him get onto his horse and buggy, sitting beside him briefly as the horse clops back to town. Pádraic bursts into tears—not because of the pain of the beating but because he has been yearning for his old friend to show him even the slightest tenderness. He hopes it will be turning point. But it’s not—Colm hops off the buggy and leaves Pádraic behind. That scene positively wrecked me. Farrell has the showier part, but Gleeson, his old scene partner from McDonagh’s great In Bruges, matches him note for note. Gleeson’s gruff, grim determination, the kind of quiet, unshakable dignity he projects in the face of Pádraic’s increasing histrionics, only adds to Pádraic’s frustration.
The Banshees of Inisherin is essentially a two-hander, but the supporting performances are quite strong, including Keoghan as the sweet sadsack Dominic and Condon as Pádraic’s sister, who is actually the smartest person in town (as opposed to Colm, who just thinks he is).
Unsurprisingly—as McDonagh is as heralded for his plays as he is for his films—The Banshees of Inisherin feels like a bit like filmed play, but it’s carefully and beautifully rendered. The small village, with its crude homes, simple way of life, roiling fog, and breathtaking cliff-side vistas feels real, and the ever-present animals—from Colm’s loyal Border Collie to Pádraic’s donkeys, goats, and horses that he insists on bringing into the house over his sister’s objections—add vividly to the sense of place. The film toggles masterfully between comedy and tragedy; realism and fable. It manages to be both of the moment and completely timeless.