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Irish goodbye – ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’

November 14, 2022
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One of the most fundamental aspects of being human is a desire for connection. We seek those connections through romance and family and friendship, all in an effort to feel just a little less alone in a world that is too often cold and uncaring. When we find those connections, and cultivate them, our sphere expands and the space through which we move becomes just a little warmer.

But what happens when we lose those connections? And worse – what if we don’t even understand why?

“The Banshees of Inisherin,” the latest film from writer-director Martin McDonagh, asks that very question. And it isn’t about death or divorce or anything like that. It’s not about the loss of a family member or a spouse. No, this is about what happens when someone’s friend – their very dear friend – decides to not be a friend anymore.

From this seemingly simple idea, McDonagh unleashes multitudes. It’s an exploration of the toxic repression of emotion that was the masculine ideal for so many generations and how damaging the results of that repression can be. It delves into the value of connection, both in terms of celebrating its presence and mourning its absence. All of it refracted through the pitch-black prism of McDonagh’s dark and tragic sense of humor and brought to effusive, excruciating life by two actors at the top of their game.

In 1923, the small island of Inisherin, just off the coast of Ireland, is a relatively quiet place. There’s a civil war on the mainland – island residents often hear cannon fire and see the smoke of battle just across the water – but it has little to no impact on their daily lives.

Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Ferrell) is one such resident. He lives a simple life, tending to a few animals and living in a small hut with his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon). She’s an educated woman and a voracious reader, but Pádraic isn’t that sophisticated. All he wants is to be able to head down to the pub after a day’s work, shooting the breeze with the rest of the locals.

One day, following his usual routine, he heads down to his buddy’s house to pick him up to go grab a pint. This time, however, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) ignores his knocks. Confused, Pádraic chalks it up to circumstance and moves along. Later on, however, Colm turns up at the pub and delivers an ultimatum:

He no longer wants to be friends with Pádraic.

Stunned, Pádraic assumes it’s a misunderstanding or some sort of joke. But as Colm soon makes abundantly clear, it is neither. Simply put, Colm no longer likes Pádraic and there is nothing that Pádraic can do about it. And if Pádraic insists on pursuing the notion, well … Colm is prepared to take rather drastic (and unpleasant) action.

A reeling Pádraic is left absolutely stunned. He spirals, unsure of what to do. He wants nothing more than to regain Colm’s friendship, but Colm’s actions make quite clear that that isn’t going to happen. To complicate matters, his sister’s life is taking a turn, leaving her with some big decisions to make. Plus, he’s got a young man named Dominic (Barry Keoghan) who has attached himself to him, which leads to its own set of complications.

The situation escalates, with neither man willing or able to find compromise. And when their conflict leads in some unexpected directions, the wider impact may prove to be truly devastating.

It’s rare for a movie to deliver both hilarity and gutpunching emotion, but that’s what Martin McDonagh has done here. It is a beautiful expression of the toxic side effects of male emotional repression, a look at what happens to men when they can’t simply be honest about their feelings. Instead of handling their situation with reason and rationality, the two spiral into a bizarre morass of desperation and self-loathing, with neither seemingly able to express anything resembling honest truth.

That central conflict powers “The Banshees of Inisherin,” casting aside anything unnecessary. That lack of adornment plays very nicely against the stark beauty of the Irish island landscape, throwing back to an ostensibly simpler time. But while the physical lifestyle might be simple, the emotional one is anything but. That dichotomy allows for escalation that, in other contexts, might feel outlandish or absurd. Instead, the extremity here feels somehow justified; when you don’t have much, what you do have becomes all the more valuable – and all the more worth fighting for.

McDonagh’s brilliance is at full glare here, both in terms of the script – which is a masterclass in emotional understatement, deftly balancing the subtle and obvious as it manages to capture both the put-on surface stoicism and the roiling turmoil beneath – and the direction, as he brings to life this quaint Irish idyll that is shot through with its own shafts of darkness. The sweeping shadows make the sunbeams shine all the brighter.

And of course, the cast.

Ferrell and Gleeson are simply incredible here. Ferrell’s Pádraic is a good-natured, amiable sort. He’s built his entire existence around being a nice guy and is genuinely flummoxed when that somehow, suddenly, isn’t enough for the man he once considered his best friend. Ferrell finds those moments of confused vulnerability throughout, endowing Pádraic with a compelling gentility. Gleeson does a fantastic job of presenting Colm’s gruffness while also allowing us just the smallest glimpses of his own internal conflict, though we’re never meant to fully understand the rationale behind his choices. Oh, he gives reasons, but those are more excuse than anything.

And the two of them together? Legitimately magical, communicating just as clearly through gesture and glance as they do with actual dialogue. They are an ideal tragicomedic duo, a less-abstracted Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for (different) something(s) that neither can fully articulate. A wildly effective example of what can happen when excellent chemistry is well wielded.

Condon is great, as is Keoghan – along with a number of other strong performances – but there’s no disputing that this film rests almost entirely on the broad and capable shoulders of Ferrell and Gleeson.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” made me laugh and made me cry. It led me to memories of friends past and present, thoughts of the choices I’ve made and why I’ve made them. It is a story of the power that connection holds over us and the pain that comes when that connection is untimely and inexplicably broken. A masterful work.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 November 2022 13:43

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