Since the start of his career, director Martin McDonagh has shown an unparalleled ability to mask darker themes behind some of the blackest comedy out there. In Bruges in particular was a discussion of guilt, shame and morality but one that wasn’t afraid to mock the weighty topics it was discussing. The Banshees of Inisherin is no different. It tells a story of the effects of loneliness and isolation on not just the minds of its characters but on their souls, most specifically their ability to know right from wrong. Both features had stellar performances from Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson but while McDonagh’s latest is tearfully funny in places, it doesn’t mask the fact that there is less going on here than his other features and it has a lot less to say behind all the jokes.
Set on the isolated and fictional island of Inisherin, two friends Pádraic (Farrell) and Colm (Gleeson) throw the quiet status quo of the island community into turmoil when Colm stops being friends with Pádraic for the simple reason that he just doesn’t like him anymore. While Colm tries to move on, Pádraic clings to the idea that they can still be friends again until Colm gives him an ultimatum that sends the island down a dark series of events.
Although this entirely original story, a bizarre take on a greek tragedy with all the darkness and death that comes with it, has a deeply committed performance in Farrell at its heart as Pádraic is pushed from his perch as the nicest man on Inisherin to something else as he struggles with being forced into isolation by his so-called friend. It’s the quieter moments with his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) that resonate most here and while the conflict between these two men is where most of the film’s drama lies, the comedy comes from the under sung community of the island like the local pub’s landlord or the overly intrusive shop owner.
In fact, it’s in the smaller characters that Banshees finds its best moments, the ones that subtly play to the films strengths in showing and not telling of an island of lonely people just trying to connect in some small meaningful way. Visually however, Inisherin is perfectly realised. A beautiful but harsh landscape surrounded by choppy waters trapping these people (or so they think) in this strange morality play of their own making. Thanks to some gorgeous cinematography by McDongagh’s long-time Director of Photography Ben Davis, Inisherin feels homely and inhospitable, warm but ice cold at the same time, using a collection of Irish islands off the coast as a substitute for the fictional location.
What McDonagh’s film is at its core is a discussion of what harsh environments will do to a person and how that kind of mentality affects those around you. Unfortunately, it homes in on its themes too forcefully, giving away its hand too early meaning that the film runs out of steam long before its inevitable conclusion and while there is much to laugh about among the horrific mundanity of Inisherin, it isn’t enough to keep this tale of self-destruction captivating. It’s just two lonely people making the most out of a boring set of circumstances and that’s pretty much it.