‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ Film Review: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson Are Back for More Twisted, Feckin’ Fun

·6-min read
Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios

The last time we saw Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson together in a movie by Martin McDonagh, the year was 2008, the film was “In Bruges” and the two Irish actors were playing hitmen stuck in a small Belgian town. The film, the first feature from playwright McDonagh, was bloody and messy and enormous fun; as much of McDonagh’s stage work had done, it gave bad taste a good name.

And now, 14 years and three movies later, McDonagh has reunited Farrell and Gleeson for “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which had its world premiere on Monday at the Venice Film Festival. In many ways, it’s a change of pace for the writer-director whose other films were “Seven Psychopaths” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – it’s an often elegiac meditation on mortality and loneliness that for long stretches consists of nothing but conversations between Farrell and Gleeson.

And even when things start to get dark and twisted and, yes, bloody – make no mistake, McDonagh has not lost his writerly bloodlust and perversity – “The Banshees of Inisherin” is still more about the conversations than the violence. It’s his quietest movie and, in many ways, his most touching, which is not to say that it won’t make you squirm in your seat as you wonder if it’s OK to laugh at what he’s throwing at you.

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The titular island of Inisherin, where the film is set in the year 1923, is apparently a stand-in for Inisheer, the smallest of the three Aran Islands in Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland. In 1998, McDonagh began a trilogy of plays set on those islands, beginning with “The Cripple of Inishmaan” and continuing with the Tony-nominated “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and with a third play, “The Banshees of Inisheer,” that he said wasn’t good enough to produce. (He did tell the New York Times in 2010 that he’d like to revisit it when he was older.)

That play was reportedly about “an aging writer with declining skills,” a description that does not fit any of the people in McDonagh’s new film. Farrell’s character, Pádraic, is not one for reading books, much less writing them; he lives in a small cottage with his sister, Siobhán (a spot-on Kerry Condon), who is an avid reader, but he’s content to hang out with his miniature donkey and spend every afternoon in the pub, talking about not much of anything with his pal Colm.

Gleeson’s Colm, though, is feeling his advancing years, and the spectre of mortality is making him dissatisfied. So one afternoon, he refuses to answer the door when Pádraic comes by for their daily trip to the bar. For two men who have seemingly been going to the pub in a small village on the tiny Irish island every afternoon for decades, this behavior is baffling to Siobhán and the bartender and everybody else who hears about it, all of whom have the same response: “Have you been rowin’? Sounds like you’ve been rowin’.”

But they haven’t been rowin’, and when Colm eventually shows up at the pub he explains things more succinctly: “Ya didn’t say anything to me, and ya didn’t do anything to me. I just don’t like ya no more.”

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Colm, it seems, is bored by Pádraic, bored by all the aimless pub conversations, bored wasting his life on a small island close enough to the mainland that they can hear the gunshots and explosions and see the glow of fires from what everybody agrees is bound to be a civil war. “Good luck to ya, whatever yer fighting about,” mutters Colm as he looks at the red glow in the distance.

For Pádraic, the problem is, as he says repeatedly, that the conversations with Colm are a necessity: “I have nothing better to do with me feckin’ time.” But for Colm, the town fiddler, the aimless chatter – two hours about what Pádraic found in his donkey’s droppings that morning! – have become an intolerable waste of time. “I have this tremendous sense of time slipping away, Pádraic,” he says. “I need to spend it thinking and composing.”

Colm’s boredom with the routine is baffling to many of the villagers; “You live on an island off the coast of Ireland,” says an incredulous Siobhán. “What do ya expect?”

The film sinks into the atmosphere of beautiful desolation on the island, with its hardscrabble existence, its sense of community, its cows wandering between green fields bordered by stone walls, its impromptu renditions of fiddle reels and folk tunes like “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day.” You anticipate some kind of explosion because this is Martin McDonagh, but before it arrives the low-key, gentle pace is richly satisfying, and the conversations between Pádraic and Colm (or the lack of conversations, when Colm gets his way) are a delight.

Farrell and Gleeson are born to the rhythms of McDonagh’s dialogue, which seems both precise and tossed off, and the casual connection between them is never less than sheer pleasure.

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Eventually, Colm delivers a gruesome ultimatum of what he’ll do if Pádraic speaks to him again. Of course, Pádraic, who sees himself as one of life’s good guys, can’t keep his mouth shut. And, of course, that means that things get very dark and very twisted, and what feels like a gentle and invigorating character study takes an ugly turn.

But the particular alchemy of “The Banshees of Inisherin” is that it can venture into McDonagh’s usual terrain while also retaining its gentle feel; it’s a moving elegy for a way of life that isn’t fading away, it’s going up in flames.

The film could be spectacularly beautiful if it wanted, but McDonagh and cinematographer Ben Davis hold back. The shots of green fields and majestic skies over the water are there, but they’re an environment, not a picture postcard — and we never forget that these bonny vistas are home to some seriously deranged behavior.

In the end, McDonagh has managed to be both mature and transgressive at the same time, with a lot of help from the priceless performances of Farrell and Gleeson. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is lovely and disturbing in equal measure, turning its darkest urges and blackest humors into a touching and evocative portrait of a time, a place, a community and a pair of crazy men.

Searchlight will release “The Banshees of Inisherin” theatrically on Oct. 21.