THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN

Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Martin McDonagh   Director: Martin McDonagh   Screenplay: Martin McDonagh   Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan, Gary Lydon, Pat Shortt, Jon Kenny, Sheila Flitton, David Pearse, Bríd Ní Neachtain and Aaron Monaghan   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: A-

At once a bleakly funny and surprisingly poignant tale of broken families and broken friendships, playwright Martin McDonagh’s fourth film as a writer-director reunites Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, the co-stars of his first, “In Bruges.” Its setting is very different from that darkly seriocomic crime thriller, but it inhabits the same territory of mordant humor mixed with discord and pain where all of McDonagh’s work, for both stage and screen, has been located.    

Inisherin is a small island off Ireland’s west coast.  In the spring of 1923, specifically on April 1 of that year, when the so-called Irish Civil War between the provisional government of the Irish Free State established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the Irish Republican Army that opposed the treaty is still raging, burly Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), a fiddler and composer of folk tunes, announces to Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), his daily drinking companion, that he wants nothing more to do with him; refusing even to respond to Pádraic’s knocks at his window, he merely tells the incredulous fellow that he doesn’t like him anymore.  It’s a sudden rupture that reflects the one that continuing between fighters who’d been partners in the Irish War of Independence, the violence of which can sometimes be discerned occurring on the mainland.  And like that conflict, it results in the shedding of blood and flesh.

At first Pádraic, noticing the date, assumes that Colm’s break with him is an April’s Fool joke.  But Doherty is adamant, the only explanation he ever offers being that he no longer wants to waste time on the trivial chitchat he’s been exchanging with the simple, clueless Súilleabháin, who shares a ramshackle house with his bookish, disaffected sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and his beloved miniature donkey Jenny; declaring Pádraic dull (to which his sister responds, “He’s always ben dull”), Colm now prefers to spend his days composing and sharing his skill with outsiders like Declan (Aaron Monaghan), who come to jam and study with him. 

Devastated by Colm’s rejection, Pádraic badgers him to reconsider.  Finally infuriated by the intrusions, Colm issues an ultimatum: every time Pádraic speaks to him, he’ll cut off one of his own fingers. Certainly he’s not serious, one thinks, but this is McDonagh terrain, and you shouldn’t discount an obstinate man’s words.

While this mini-war is waging, the few other characters in the village observe the bizarre goings-on while getting on with their own lives.  Jovial barman Jonjo (Pat Shortt) endeavors to keep the peace in the pub while perpetual customer Gerry (Jon Kenny) looks on uncomprehending.  Mentally challenged Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan), repeatedly brutalized by his father Peadar (Gary Lydon), the brutish local constable, struggles to connect with his neighbors, acts as a surprisingly shrewd sounding-board for confused Pádraic and shyly proposes to Siobhán, who tries to be kind in rejecting him while debating whether she should leave the island—and her brother—for more promising prospects elsewhere.  The village priest (David Pearse) seems at a loss to contend with the locals’ problems, prodding Colm in the confessional about the dangers of despair until the supposed penitent’s snappy responses leave him fuming, while gossip Mrs. O’Riordan (Bríd Ní Neachtain) aims to know everything about everybody, even prying open letters in the post to scan people’s secrets and then rebuking anyone who complains that they never tell her anything.  And lurking behind every corner is aged harpy Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), a crone dressed in black who issues waspish prophecies in a vinegary tone with malicious satisfaction.  Even the animals—Jenny and Colm’s ever-loyal Border collie—are drawn into the conflict that ultimately seems to overtake the entire island, leaving embittered desolation in its wake.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” is like a dark twentieth-century fairytale, carrying almost mythic overtones, with a sense of time and place masterfully caught by McDonagh and his collaborators.  Production designer Mark Tildesley, costumer Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh and cinematographer Ben Davis, using locations on Inishmore and Achill Island to often stunning effect in his widescreen visuals, and editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen create a feel both ruggedly real yet somehow otherworldly, while Carter Burwell adds a suitably distinctive score.  The script is innately theatrical, having more in common with McDonagh’s stage work than his other films, but thanks to their efforts it never seems stagey.

And the performances are impeccable.  Gleeson brings his gruffness and bellicosity to Colm, making him a veritable force of nature, as implacable as the island cliffs or the stone walls lining its roads even as his digital losses mount.  In what might very well be the best acting he’s ever done, Farrell brings a sweet, sad soulfulness to Pádraic, though as his losses mount, an embarrassed steeliness creeps in (witness the cruel trick he plays on Declan to get him to depart).  In that case, however, he immediately regrets what he’s done; at the end, he’s become as stone cold and determined as Colm.

All the rest of the cast fit perfectly with McDonagh’s conception, but two must be singled out: Condon, who is luminous as Siobhán, whose desire to escape what she sees as a place of petty men is perfectly understandable, and Keoghan, whose turn as Dominic is mannered, but in a fashion that reveals the character rather than turning it into a caricature of the town fool.

“The Banshees of Inishiren” is a satisfyingly odd Gallic fable, combining whimsy with bitter truths about human frailty.  Its combination of humor and gruesomeness is typical of McDonagh, and shows him at the peak of his wonderfully idiosyncratic game.