The Banshees of Inishirin, a new period film by Martin McDonagh, satisfies a growing, terrible hunger for purely original character and dialogue driven cinema amongst the endless spin-offs, franchises, and remakes that are swallowing the film world whole. The film’s narrow scope upon a simple rift between two friends, grounded in a hyper-specific time and place (the cliffs of a small island called Inishirin in Ireland, during the beginning of the Irish Civil War), with only a few supporting characters, is precisely what makes the film so refreshingly high quality. McDonagh doesn’t try to confound, shock, and exhaust as many recent films such as Don’t Worry Darling and Everything Everywhere All at Once have, but rather shows you something new in a soft and beautiful tone that lingers with you for the right reasons.
Pádraic (Colin Ferrell) is a simple-minded cattle farmer, who lives in a modest house by the shore with his much sharper sister, Siobahn (Kerry Condon). Pádraic has spent his days doing little more than tending to his cattle, petting his beloved indoor donkey, Jenny, and chatting about the uneventful happenings of the island over pints of beer with his best friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) at the pub. But one day when Pádraic saunters down the dirt road to fetch Colm, a reserved and introspective fiddle player, from his house, no one answers the door. He peers through the window to see his companion puffing on a cigar, utterly unresponsive to his pounding and shouting at the window. With each passing day of Colm’s sudden disregard, Pádraic grows more panicked and bewildered. When he finally runs into Colm at the bar, he begs for an explanation, to which Colm responds “I just don’t like you no more,” with somber resolve. “But you liked me yesterday,” Pádraic says.
From this moment on, we observe the escalating tension between the wildly different ways the two men have viewed both their relationship, and the nature of life itself. Where Pádraic sees small talk about the goings about town as the fundamental binding material of his limited life as “the nice man,” Colm sees the pastime to be meaningless white noise serving to only further delay him from pursuing the things that will immortalize him before it’s too late, like composing music with his fiddle. Pádraic flails in agonizing denial as he learns the extent to which his closest friend has been merely enduring — not enjoying — their ample time spent together, while Colm grows increasingly infuriated by Pádraic’s inability to leave him alone. When he delivers an ultimatum to Pádraic, that each time he violates the request for silence, Colm will chop off one of his fingers with a pair of garden shears and leave it at Pádraic’s door, the true extent of the tremendous ego and suffering of both men is gradually brought forth.
Some have speculated that Banshees is an allegory for the Irish Civil War, with the relatively benign conflict between the two friends devolving into complete irrationality and causing lasting damage to both parties as a result. As Pádraic says to Colm near the end of the film, “Some things there’s no moving on from. And I think that’s a good thing.” However, even if there was no allegorical significance to the story, it would not lose any degree of poignancy and human relevance. Despite some horrifically sad moments in this film, it is imbued with an enchantingly folklorish warmth that perfectly captures the feel of a small rural town in which everyone knows each other on a first name basis, and congregates at the same pub every afternoon because of a lack of anything better to do. The two leading actors display the intricate pains of a sudden fracture in a friendship so acutely that one is almost transported back to elementary school, and the first searing memory of a best friend ignoring you for no apparent reason — being buddy-buddy with everyone except you — and the lasting ache of this experience.
The allegory asserts itself in subtle ways, though, that should not be overlooked. As the sound of missiles and gunfire from the mainland carry over to Inishirin, we begin to understand why Colm is suddenly grappling with his mortality and the significance of how he spends his indeterminate amount of time remaining. He starts teaching fiddle lessons to small groups of talented musicians at the pub, who have traveled over from the city, as Pádraic sits crestfallen in the shadows, watching while he sips his beer. Every scene in the film feels startlingly familiar and medieval at the same time. While stylistically, one is confronted by just how far we are from ever inhabiting a life so simple and raw again, the emotional content of each scene is a mirror of ubiquitous life experience. Pádraic is on the dull side, to be sure, but he is also the embodiment of a common insecurity and confusion felt by most: that one’s life may not be as useful as they might have hoped, or perceptions of them may not be as favorable as they might have liked. Colm serves as more of a theoretical ideal — he is so assured and phlegmatic so as to hideously mutilate his physical body and his greatest aspirations, all for the sake of proving his distaste for mundanity in the form of Pádraic. In the ambiguous end to the film, both men are left ultimately crippled by the wreckage they have both caused and endured, but the harsh and hubristic Colm is somewhat softened to the value of “the nice man,” and the oblivious and unheeding Pádraic is left wary and hardened to the unforgiving scourge of life. I would give this move a 9/10 for its originality, wit, and strikingly beautiful Irish countryside aesthetics.