Have you ever thought about breaking up with your best friend overnight?
Friendships are fragile things, and they can evolve over time as people age and their existential crisis alerts start to kick up. The cadence of a bond between two former strangers can twist and slice through the years. For two longtime best friends living in a small town off the Irish coast in 1923, this impasse in their connection starts to have real effects on the island and its residents.
Played brilliantly by Colin Farrell and Brenden Gleeson respectively, Padraic and Colm are the kind of close pals who pick each other up at their home before heading to a pub and sit in a certain spot at the bar. But their ying/yang is disrupted less than ten minutes into “The Banshees of Inisherin,” when Colm doesn’t come out of his house to meet Padraic, and doesn’t want to sit next to him at the bar anymore.
The reasons for Colm’s sudden decision pale in comparison to the lengths he will go in order to starve off Padraic’s friendship, something that writer/director Martin McDonaugh has come off as darkly comedic instead of extremely bleak. By mixing the tempos and having the characters speak honestly and reactionary, the filmmaker keeps the audience on its toes for the majority of the run time. You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next, or if the film will lean into its earnest side or its bleak nature, so your attention never wavers.
Repeatedly told that he is a nice guy yet constantly called “dim and dull” by Colm and others, Farrell’s lad doesn’t understand how someone can just make a choice so severe, even if his buddy is already at peace with it. Even when presented with a gruesome ultimatum, Padraic doesn’t hesitate to continue to try and get to the bottom of Colm’s dilemma, which only heightens the tension in the town.
In this fictional universe, “Inisherin” is the small town where the mail lady demands gossip when a person stops by for their mail. It’s a place where a bartender can seem like a mayor at certain times of the day. A place where everybody knows something (or most) about everybody else, which means that privacy can only be found inside the sanctity of your home. It can’t be found with the town’s loose cannon (Barry Keouhan) or Padraic’s resourceful and loyal sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon).
What McDonagh does so well here is discuss and put out there the notions and perceptions of mental illness and depression in “The Banshees of Inisherin” without having to stomp his feet and alert the audience they are being talked about. Movies that can infer without directly pointing at a real issue-one that was buried back in 1923-are sage pieces of make believe that can cut through to real life. When Colm visits a priest for his sins, he is asked about “his despair,” a direct calling card to depression and how it can team up with an existential crisis and redirect a mind.
The audience rarely leaves Padraic’s shoes. The movie starts with him and stays close to his point of view, making him the true emotional core of McDonagh’s film. The Irish actor continues his amazing year-he stole “The Batman” and was terrific in “Thirteen Lives”-with a role that could net him an Oscar nomination. What he can do with an expression or a few words is what makes Farrell dynamite. You feel the brunt of his despair and aimless goal to win back his friend, something quite a few people have attempted in their life.
McDonagh ingeniously doesn’t tell you who to side with or believe in “Inisherin,” which is a welcome element these days. Being told who to like or how to think rarely makes for a good time at the movies. It’s like being told where to sit in an empty restaurant. He presents a slew of very realistically acting souls and gives them a master dilemma, which leads to a series of unfortunate events. Capturing the unstable humanity, along with black comedy and the brevity of life changing our decisions daily, within a motion picture isn’t easy work, but McDonagh strikes a nice balance of moods and tones.
As the two primary leads, Gleeson and Farrell are a dream team, just as they were in McDonagh’s “In Bruges.” The two always play unconventional pals/allies/enemies, and it makes for riveting cinema. Gleeson elevates any material, but finds a soulful comfort zone in Colm, an older man who is starting to hear the ticking clock ring louder in his life. Like his co-star, he doesn’t attempt to overact or chew scenery, speaking as candidly to the characters as he would an audience.
Condon, whom audiences may know from their enjoyment of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” in recent years, breaks out in a major way with Siohban. She almost steals the movie, taking many scenes with a ferocity that previous roles simply didn’t allow her to reach. Keoghan can tap into any quirky character, but his town misfit has a few shades of grey that prove intuitive to the third act. It’s a fine performance from a young actor with lots of upside.
The screenplay, though, is the star of this show. It’s the strongest script yet in 2022, at least that I have seen. It presents questions without answers, and throws them at the crowd in a non-preachy way. From the eloquent and blunt conversations that erupt at will to the unpredictable third act, it’s just a well-composed story. As he did in “In Bruges” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” McDonagh doesn’t waste a unique setup and gifted cast, pulling performances out of them that most directors simply could not.
Other directors and casts could have taken “Inisherin” and cooked up a half-baked Coen Brother or Farrelly brother take that didn’t resonate at all, leaning into the comedy more than the depraved despair. McDonagh doesn’t waste our time. This is a very good and highly original film that will claim some real estate in your soul for a few days, and make you think about finding a pet donkey.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” wrestles with the restless nature of life and the aging process, and how our decisions and actions can evolve in relation to the merciless pull of Father Time. Who we spend our days with and the reasons we do creates a fork in the road for most moviegoers, challenging us to examine our own lives, minds, and futures. Only the best of movies can pull that off without taking itself too seriously and making us laugh.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” is easily one of 2022’s best.