Friendship Dies in the Astute Tragicomedy ‘The Banshees of Inishiren’

[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation for their coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.]

Men would rather cut off their fingers than seek therapy.

I highly doubt Martin McDonagh is familiar with the meme, but it provides some thematic and tonal context for The Banshees of Inisherin. The filmmaker’s followup to the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes him back to his Irish roots, where he digs into how rural communities connect, or don’t.

The latter is what plagues Pádraic Súilleabháin, played by Colin Farrell. One day, he learns that his close friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) wants nothing to do with him. Colm gives little explanation, leaving Pádraic deeply confused and very sad. He tries desperately to seek answers, enlisting the help of his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and Dominic (Barry Keoghan), a local acquaintance. Try as Pádraic might, Colm won’t budge on his new boundaries and escalates their row to extremes to get his distance (hence, the fingers).

If even the threat of dismemberment seems like a bit much, trust that Martin McDonagh knows it too. He’s keenly aware of the initial absurdity of Colm and Pádraic’s conflict and derives from it bales’ worth of humor. The sharp screenplay uses every opportunity to emphasize the insanity of the feud. The one-liners and inside jokes not only make you laugh but show you the closeness of this Irish island community. (The building cacophony of “are you two having a row” questions is just brilliant.) The community’s comedic incredulity gives the breakup significant weight. We’ve only known Pádraic and Colm for a few minutes. The pub regulars and Siobhán have known them their whole lives. If they can’t believe what’s happening, maybe there’s something to this conflict, perhaps something terrible.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Colm and Pádraic’s split isn’t as dramatic as a heartbreak or betrayal, but it’s just as potent. Colm struggles with ennui and depression, and he believes the solution is abandoning Pádraic for more meaningful pursuits. Seeking new fulfillment seems like a solid path, but Colm executes it poorly. McDonagh explores how and why that is, linking his central pair to a broader conversation about the dimensions and gaps of male friendship. Pádraic and Colm’s genuine care and affection are muddied by their inability to express their complex emotions. They don’t have the necessary language, forcing them to communicate through increasingly outlandish forms of expression.

The Banshees of Inisherin suggests that the emotional disconnect is a community symptom. In this farming village that McDonagh depicts, there are very few incentives for healthy communication. (Pádraic’s closest friend after Colm? His donkey.) Economic necessity and antiquated rules of engagement drive this close-knit community. It also stagnates and stifles it, exacerbating the pain and allowing different forms of abuse to proliferate. Can one escape such an environment? Banshees offers some poignant answers. Some characters can find a path out but must leave everything behind. Others decide they’re so entrenched that it’s better to surrender. The balance of comedy and heavier material bolsters McDonagh’s insight into how communities can uplift and fail their members.

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN. (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

At the center are Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Instead of “disappearing” into the role, Farrell uses his absorbing screen presence to fully realize the breadth of Pádraic’s emotional distress. Farrell is adept at playing the wide-eyed straight man for laughs but lets through glimmers of melancholy, fear, and anger. Similarly, Gleeson allows tenderness and care to slip through his intentional brusqueness and cruelty, which makes it all the more tragic. Neither actor delivers a false note in their performances, playing off each other with an effortlessly natural feel that is irresistible to watch. Brilliant as they are, Kerry Condon is revelatory as Siobhán, the one person who can see beyond the hills and valleys of their village.

So yes, men would rather cut off their fingers than seek therapy, and The Banshees of Inisherin offers some compelling reasons. Martin McDonagh crafts a tragicomic marvel that explores the extreme lengths we go through not to seek help. His exploration has humor and gravitas, buoyed by the storytelling’s lived-in quality and excellent performances across the board. The film will make you laugh, yes, but it may also push you to rethink your approach to relationships. Perhaps you might find a healthier path that doesn’t require self-dismemberment.

It’s an odd qualifier to be one of the year’s best films, but if it helps saves some fingers, so be it.

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