It is the spring of 1923 in the humble community on the island of Inisherin, off the coast of Ireland, and Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) is confused by what he’s just been told by his longtime friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson). Pádraic expects a regular afternoon convening at the pub with his chum to chat away over a pint or two (or more). Instead, Colm informs Pádraic that he won’t be joining him. In fact, Colm intends to end the friendship altogether. There’s been no great row, no irredeemable betrayal. Colm has simply decided he’s done. With waning years in his weary life, he wants an escape from from the endless, aimless commiserations with Pádraic.
From that exquisitely simple beginning, writer-director Martin McDonagh unspools The Banshees of Inisherin, the strongest film he’s ever signed his name to. As opposed to his previous feature, the generally dreadful Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh grounds the astute psychology and deeply rendered characters. It’s McDonagh, so there are still swings down dark avenues, but maybe for the first time in his oeuvre, such business has wider purpose than sparking shock. The beats of black comedy convey information about the people moving through the scenes and the culture they live in. Everything McDonagh includes in the film contributes to its authenticity.
The truthfulness of the piece is also attributable to the marvelous performances across the cast. Although most of the plot requires them to be in a state of conflict, Farrell and Gleeson have a charmed rapport that comes from already understanding each other’s thespian rhythms (primarily from McDonagh’s In Bruges). Farrell gets a little more to play as his character moves through waves of confusion and cavorts within his own self-sabotaging instincts. There are also sterling supporting turns by Kerry Condon, as Pádraic’s sternly capable sister, and Barry Keoghan, playing the village’s requisite doltish irritant with a level of nuance that suitably forecasts contextual complexities to come.
The Banshees of Inisherin takes place as the Irish Civil War is edging loudly to a close, and McDonagh draws clear parallels between the skirmishes happening on and off the island, If the metaphor isn’t exactly subtle, it’s effective. It probably helps that whenever McDonagh needs to momentarily reset the film’s bearings, he defaults to a wide shot of gorgeous Irish terrain. That tactic could feel like a cheat. It doesn’t. It’s a solid reflection of the soulfulness of the entire film.