It’s an odd quirk that the most contemporary of paranoias – being ghosted – is articulated so perfectly by a film set on a scantily populated Irish island in the entirely internet-free 1920s. That’s the setting for Martin McDonagh’s latest blend of belly laughs and emotional gut punches – arguably, and with apologies to stans of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, his best film since In Bruges.
What makes it work so well, aside from a rollickingly funny but never smirky McDonagh script that arms every member of its small ensemble with killer moments, is the reuniting of In Bruges’s two leads, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.
Here, the chemistry between the pair is an ever-more volatile blend: rather than a suicidal hitman nursing a deep guilt, Farrell plays Pádraic, a mulish but kind-hearted man who lives with his sister (Kerry Condon, terrific), loves his miniature donkey like his best pal, Colm (Gleeson), and wouldn’t know guilt if it hit him in the face.
The problem is that, for Colm, the flames of this once-fraternal love have burnt out. Pádraic is a drain, a dullard who is holding him back from his higher purpose: which mainly boils down to penning a new ditty on his fiddle and sinking pints with someone – anyone – else. ‘Have ya been rowin’?’ a confused Pádraic is asked by the regulars at his local pub.
It’s all so out of the blue, he’s not even sure. The island’s young drifter, Dominic (Barry Keoghan), is soon plying him with his dad’s stolen potato liquor, spying an opportunity to make a friend but torching it with his habit of telling unpalatable truths.
With apologies to Three Billboards fans, this is McDonagh’s best film since In Bruges
Spectacularly backdropped by the sheer cliffs and stonewalled fields of Ireland’s Atlantic coast, and accompanied by the glockenspiel of Carter Burwell’s eerie score, The Banshees of Inisherin uses the absence at the heart of this strange but inexorable feud to surprise and shock. As the Irish Civil War rumbles on over on the mainland, Pádraic and Colm start to act it out in microcosm. McDonagh expertly charts an argument metastasising and mutating to the point where its cause no longer even matters.
Gleeson is more than solid as the exasperated Colm, but it’s Farrell’s film. It takes a smart actor to play dim without lapsing into caricature, while he also brings a gentle sense of puppy-dog hurt to the slighted Pádraic that gives Banshees its bruised heart. And beyond all the quips and souring banter, there’s no shortage of the stuff in a break-up story that leaves a haunting impression.
The Banshees of Inisherin premiered at the Venice Film Festival.