Whether we wear it on our sleeves or bury it somewhere down in the darkest part of ourselves, we all carry the fear that someday someone we trust and love will simply decide to abandon us. It lives somewhere in each of us in the same vicinity as the fear that, someday, inexplicable and motive-less violence will descend on us and our loved ones—a little knot of dread waiting to unspool. But this fear is quieter, simpler and, therefore, less-often discussed in the wider cultural landscape. There are a lot of films about sudden violence, but you don’t see as many feature-length explorations of straightforward, person-to-person departures. With that in mind, it would be easy to look to Martin McDonagh’s phenomenal The Banshees of Inisherin as some kind of fable, a dark fairy tale from a faraway time and place meant to cast long, shadowy metaphors over our own lives. If you’re willing to look closely, you’ll definitely find all the material you need to make those metaphors happen in your mind, but at the film’s Fantastic Fest premiere, McDonagh himself called it “a simple break-up story,” an exploration of what might happen to two men if one simply decided to cut ties with the other.
So, is it a grand, fathoms-deep exploration of the bittersweet nature of human relationships, or “a simple break-up story” that’s just about one Irishman deciding he doesn’t want to see another Irishman anymore? In the end, it’s both, and that’s what makes The Banshees of Inisherin and its blackly hilarious portrait of everyday pain one of the best films of the year.
Through beautifully framed shots rich with the texture of rustic stone walls and the warped glass of old windows, McDonagh takes us back to Ireland a century ago, where civil war rages on the mainland and things progress at their usual slow pace on the island of Inisherin. It’s here, with artillery fire raging in the background, that Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) decides he’s done hanging out with his old pub pal Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell). For some on the island, it makes a certain degree of sense—the creative and contemplative Colm and the more simple-minded Pádraic always were a mismatched pair—but for Pádraic, it’s a baffling, literal overnight tectonic shift in his life. He hopes Colm’s sudden distance is part of a fight that he somehow forgot, or a poor choice of words after one too many pints, but according to Colm, it’s painfully, frighteningly simple: “I just don’t like you no more.”
Colm’s decision sends an unpredictable ripple effect through the island village, as Pádraic’s well-read sister Siobhán (an incandescent Kerry Condon), local miscreant Dominic (Barry Keoghan) and even the local parish priest all have something to say about it. But even as McDonagh devotes considerable emotional energy and depth to these supporting characters, his script—crackling with bright, musical dialogue—keeps an almost preternatural focus on Pádraic and Colm, and the one-sided mystery of their falling out.
Both men grow consumed by the fallout of Colm’s decision: Pádraic descends deeper into a desperate need to understand why his friend has abandoned him; Colm descends into a frustrated spiral of his own as he fights to prove that he’s not just in a mood. He really means it, and he’s willing to do anything—even cut off his own fingers with a pair of shears—to prove that his quest for some kind of late-in-life peace means leaving Pádraic behind for good.
It’s easy to imagine a version of this narrative that devolves into a simple midlife crisis movie, or which takes a left turn into some other explanation that can be explained away by a plot twist or the sudden arrival of a third character who Understands It All, but McDonagh’s too smart for that. He is sincere in his desire to make Banshees a break-up movie, so while another filmmaker might’ve moved sideways along the narrative looking for alternatives, he just digs deeper into the meat of this particular, specific problem between two men, examining it from all angles, adding texture and shading as he pleases, infusing the whole narrative with dark, insightful humor. Even more importantly, though the film ultimately spends more time with Pádraic, McDonagh never seems to truly pick a side, never seems to look down on Pádraic for his simple-mindedness or judge Colm for his coldness. There are consequences for both men, and loss, and pain, and the delicate balance struck between all those bitter notes and the laugh-out-loud comedy of the piece combine to make The Banshees of Inisherin one of the best screenplays not just of this year, but of the 21st century so far.
Making that screenplay sing, of course, is a challenge all its own, and the cast rises to meet it. Gleeson can glower with the best of them, but his Colm is so much more than a scowling, frustrated loner. There’s an immense richness in his performance, a kindness in his eyes even when his story is at its darkest, a warmth that reminds us of his humanity even when the character goes cold. Farrell rises to match his co-star’s energy with the same light, giving Pádraic a depth even when he’s forced to admit his ignorance, revealing the complexity of a man whose life and ambitions are simple, daring us to work to understand him even as the characters around him think they’ve got the guy all figured out. Then there’s Condon, stuck in the middle of this often baffling rift, stealing scenes left and right with quiet fury and an endless well of compassion and perfect comic timing. Add in Keoghan, who’s a welcome presence no matter where he emerges these days, and you can’t look away.
And they truly feel like they live in Inisherin, with its simple houses and its cozy pub, which McDonagh and cinematographer Ben Davis bring to verdant, crackling life throughout. Much of Banshees is shot through warped panes of glass, through doorways and around the stone walls that divide the island up into individual parcels of territory. This allows us to imagine we’re watching this strange showdown between two men through the island’s eyes, through the eyes of history—maybe even through the eyes of the banshees of the film’s title, who may be real or may be our own inner voices portending something ominous. It all creates an atmosphere that invites us to ask a question about what we’re watching: On the grand scale of time, does it really matter if one man decides to cut ties with another? Will history record it? Will anyone care? Or, when faced with our own mundane despair in the face of the vast wider world, is being nice to your neighbor the only thing that matters?
McDonagh’s characters, and McDonagh himself, might not have an answer for us, but the film’s ability to call these questions to mind is evidence of its haunting power. In its unwavering devotion to the straightforward nature of its story, The Banshees of Inisherin has found something profound and universal, something that will leave you both laughing and shaken to your core. It’s the kind of film that crawls into your soul and stays there.
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan
Release Date: October 21, 2022
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.