The Banshees of Inisherin is the first of Martin McDonagh’s films to be set exclusively in Ireland, so it’s perhaps not surprising that it harkens back to The Leenane Trilogy, the play cycle that marked his entry into the theatrical world. In fact, Banshees plays more like one of McDonaugh’s compositions for the stage than for the screen, both in its subject matter and in its artistic approach. It starts with a series of sweeping establishing shots that evoke an idyllic Irish pastoral, a primal Irish scene comprised of the brilliant white sky, the almost fluorescent green fields, and the stark vertical cliffs of Inisherin, an island somewhere off the coast of Ireland. The picture is completed when we cut to the small port of Inisherin, where a rainbow – perhaps Finian’s Rainbow – crests over the water as our protagonist, Pádraic Súilleabháin, played by Colin Farrell, makes his way to the home of his best friend, Colm Doherty, played by Brendan Gleeson, for their regular pint of beer at the island’s single pub.
At first, this idyllic space feels more mythical than historical, and is difficult to situate in time and space, partly because McDonagh fills the first act with a heightened and self-conscious Irish lexicon. I’m not sure if it’s because I’d just watched Bad Sisters, an amazing Irish series set in the present, but the dialogue here felt uniformly broad, hokey and twee to me, as did the characterisation, especially Farrell’s characterisation, which initally feels like so many tweaks on the archetypal larrikin, or even leprechaun. That all mutes and mutates, however, as a result of two factors – first, our gradual realisation that the action is unfolding in the 1920s, at the height of the Irish Civil War; second, the driving plot point of the film, which is that Colm has abruptly decided that he no longer wants to spend time with Pádraic, despite having been friends for over a decade. Colm initially provides no explanation for this decision, creating a profound fracture in the whimsical Irish atmosphere of the film, and producing a dissonant tone that Pádraic tries in vain to parse, with the help of his sister Siobhán, played by Kerry Condon. At times Colm’s actions feel close to what we would now call ghosting, but they also take on a more mystical quality, evoking a great silence, and a great sadness, that hovers around the Civil War, as echoes of gunfire periodically waft across from the mainland.
Colm’s silence is only enhanced by the fact that Banshees feels more like a play than a film. For all the expansive establishing-shots, the action is quite airless, like it’s shot on a sound stage, partly because there’s very little ambient noise, partly because McDonagh is quite circumspect about camera movement, and partly because Inisherin itself is so contained and stagebound, turning daily life there into a kind of chamber drama. Add to that a very wordy, self-consciously “literary” script, and a register that falls somewhere between traditional and modern Irish, and there’s not much in the way of visual flair here, beyond the broadest strokes of McDonagh’s epic mythography. This tends to be true of all his films, which typically focus on speech acts in lieu of a vivid visual signature, and so tend to be about the process of writing, whether it’s the screenplay of Seven Psychopaths, the billboards of Ebbing, Missouri or the film shoot of In Bruges. These literary flourishes also abound in Banshees, especially around Siobhán, who eventually gets a job on the mainland as a librarian, and is regularly hassled by the general store owner for gossip and stories. But they’re clearest in Colm’s silence, which, we soon learn, stems from his consuming desire to write a proper story before his time is up.
Unlike McDonagh’s previous protagonists, however, Colm understands this story in musical terms. Beset by despair at the “tremendous sense of time passing away,” and anxious to cement a legacy without a wife or family, he jettisons Pádraic to work on a composition that he eventually terms “The Banshees of Inisherin,” telling him that “by Wednesday there’ll be a new tune in the world that wouldn’t have existed if I’d talked bollocks with you.” Rather than waste his time in “aimless chatting…with a limited man,” Colm deflects his remaining energy into music, and yet, for Pádraic, the very experience of idle chat, and luxuriating in the Irish vernacular, is what constitutes music. No surprise, then, that Pádraic sees Colm’s rejection of “good normal chat” as a way of disavowing the musicality of the Irish voice, and as a pretension to more English and imperial ideas of cultural legacy. Conversely, Pádraic likes Colm best when he drinks, and becomes aggressive, since it’s only then that the pure music of his Irish lilt comes to the fore, cushioned and stimulated by the mythic power of alcohol.
In other words, music, and the process of literary composition, encompasses both men in a dialogue between England and Ireland. Neither Colm nor Pádraic can resolve this dialogue, meaning that the more dependent they become on each other, the more self-destructive their actions grow as well. For while Pádraic might demonstrate the true power of the Irish voice by imbibing alcohol, and win Colm’s respect in the process, he’s also a notoriously unpleasant and self-destructive drunk. Similarly, Colm soon threatens to cut off a finger for each instance that Pádraic disrespects his need for silence, and quickly makes good on his promise, limiting his ability to play the violin composition that his rejection of his best friend was meant to facilitate. The very conditions for creating this piece destroy his capacity to perform it, while also further cementing his dependence on Colm, since with each finger he gives him, he also gives a piece of his music, while also embedding Colm’s conversation deeper and deeper in the compositional process, as he reshapes the musical structure to accommodate the loss of finger after finger. Rather than separating himself from Pádraic, Colm thus tries to fuse them both in a musical dialectic, to incite his friend to peak musicality, until he realises that the only place that he can properly play his piece is at Pádraic’s funeral.
Caught in that vicious dialectic spiral, in the midst of a dialogue that cannot be resolved, both men are suffused with a sadness that requires the haptic language of animals to fully articulate itself. In fact, both men are more attuned to animals than people, whether it’s Colm’s love of dancing with his dog, or Pádraic’s love of drinking with his donkey, evoking a peaceable menagerie as the primal scene of Irish male identity, an Edenic paradise proportionate to the fall in grace that came with empire. Farrell, in particular, plays Colm as an animal, an innocent plaintive surface that makes him “nice,” a “good guy,” a “happy lad” until he suddenly realises, with Colm’s silence, that those attributes have no value – or worse, might mean he is simply “dim,” “dull” and “boring.” It’s one of Farrell’s best performances, especially once we reach the third and strongest act of the film, which retreats from almost all dialogue into a visceral silence that immerses us directly into Pádraic’s face and body, and culminates with the unbearably moving death of his donkey, the emotional climax of the film. From here, McDonagh segues into the stillness of the confessional box on the Sabbath, where the local priest tells Colm that killing a donkey is no crime. Yet the most sacred relationship in Banshees is between man and beast, and so it’s in Pádraic’s donkey that we commune with a collective grief, a consuming sadness, that not even Irish Catholicism can pervade or assuage.
Throughout this third act, Farrell is all vulnerability and hesitation, one moment of self-doubt after another, as if uncertain whether he is even human, until we end with him alone, in his house, entirely occupied by animals, as he writes a letter to Siobhán to tell her he will be staying on Inisherin rather than joining her on the mainland. It’s a powerful ending, and a beautifully plaintive closing note, and yet, while I was moved, Banshees wasn’t ultimately my type of film. Certainly, there are some very actorly performances here, some very literary writing, and a clear and clever allegory of the Irish Civil War that harkens back to McDonagh’s work on The Leenane Trilogy. But the self-conscious cleverness of it, as well as the wordiness and writerliness of the script, kept me at bay, as often occurs when I see films helmed by playwrights. There’s a seriousness here that, for me, was more often assumed than earned, and all too often descended into a kind of sententious lesson in proper cinema – the kind of film that’s made for critics to love, but that I admired (and only at times) more than I enjoyed.