‘I’m not trying to be nice, I’m trying to be accurate’ explains a sage character in Martin McDonagh’s fourth film; accuracy is one of the virtues of McDonagh’s peerless gift for dialogue and character. Set in rural Ireland circa 1923, it’s the story of a feud between two men; Colm (Brendan Gleeson) is a musician who likes to play his violin down the local pub. The other Pádraic (Colin Farrell) is a pal who, as a result of behaviour we never see, Colm decides he can no longer continue his friendship with; the resultant dispute, bloody and unfortunate, makes up the body of the film.
The Banshees of Inisheran recalls Herman Melville’s seminal text Bartelby the Scrivener, in which a young man refuses to work for reasons he refuses to state. So it’s never clear exactly what triggered Colm to change his mind and behaviour when it comes to Pádraic; Colm simply claims his friend is dull, and reserves the right to rescind his friendship. But Pádraic won’t take no for an answer, and escalates the feud; it’s equally unclear exactly why Colm escalates things so dramatically by promising to chop off one of his own fingers for each time that Pádraic approaches him, but that’s where McDonagh’s narrative goes, and the consequences are both unexpected and tragic.
As in his splendid play A Behanding in Spokane, or in the popular film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh fashions a central conflict in which a character has a bone that they simply won’t let go of; whatever Colm and Pádraic’s friendship was, and vestiges of it remain in moments of unexpected tenderness between the two, Colm is determined to end it with immediate effect. Gleeson and Farrell clearly relish the strength of the material, which seeks to reveal that when it comes to argument, mountains and molehills have the same basic structure. And Kelly Condon has a striking role as Pádraic’s sister, who sees clearly that the traditional battle-lines drawn between Irish men in a remote community leave no place for her practicality or common sense.
Nothing lasts forever, and McDonagh’s canny writing captures the fragility of life amongst remote greenery; a community that thrives on gossip and news, from the enquiring post-mistress to the over-avuncular police presence. There may be no Banshees in Inisherin anymore, but the men who survive them don’t care for war or politics; they’ve got enough on-going conflict inside their heads to fuel them to the grave, early or not. While shirking all the trappings of virtue-signalling, issue-based drama, The Banshees of Inisherin is a straight-up masterpiece, and one that offers a striking moral for the fake news era and beyond; ‘some things can’t be moved on from’ says Colm, and on reflection, he’s right to say it.
The Banshees of Inisherin hits cinema screening in the UK and US from Oct 21 2022.
Thanks to Disney UK for advance big screen access to this film.