Release Date: October 21st, 2022
Director: Martin McDonagh | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 9/10
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
There’s a short shot at the start of Martin McDonagh’s latest philosophical dark dramedy, The Banshees of Inisherin, that serves as a sort of thesis for the rest of the film. Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) is visiting his years-long closest friend, Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), to invite him to join for their daily afternoon pint at the local public house. It’s another unremarkable afternoon on the sleepy, idyllic island of Inisherin, and two unremarkable men continue in their unremarkable lives. But this time something’s different. When Pádraic knocks on Colm’s door, he gets no response. He knocks again – still no response. Confused, he walks along the side of the house, working his way to a small window to try and peer in. Cut to a shot of the window before Pádraic arrives to it, and it provides us no clarity as to the resident inside – all we see as the audience is a reflection of the crashing waves upon the Inisherin shoreline. Then, when the outline of Pádraic’s body covers the window, suddenly we see clearly into the house: Colm is sitting alone, actively ignoring Pádraic’s knocking. After a few moments of indifference, Pádraic leaves the window again, and suddenly our view of Colm disappears once more into the ocean. It’s as if McDonagh wants everyone to know, through the lives of even these unremarkable men, that we all in some way belong to one another – that our identities, our values, our personhoods, our legacies are all wrapped up into the lives of those around us. There is no autonomous person, able to live independent from their neighbors (even the ones they dislike). There is only the undeniably interwoven fabric of human relationships, binding all of us together. We are undefinable–indeed, even non-existent–without one another.
Yet Colm insists on ripping himself from away from this tapestry of relationship. “You didn’t do anything,” he tells Pádraic soon afterwards in that breathy and beautiful Irish accent. “I just don’t like ya no more.” What follows is the delightfully sullen breakdown of a friendship built on little more than daily pints of beer, with Pádraic’s confusion and persistent seeking of answers met by increasing extremes of isolation from Colm. At one point, the latter threatens to cut off one of his fingers each time the former speaks to him; after all, as an amateur violinist on a remote island, Colm needs to do something of meaning with his life, or else he’ll simply become a mist vanishing into the fog of human history. McDonagh sets this parabolic fable in the background of the Irish Civil War, and certainly not by accident: it is as if he wants the audience to see, as explosions go off in the distant horizon, that such violence begins not with warring nations, religions, parties, or clans, but within the human heart itself, in the small and deliberate ways we cut ourselves off from one another.
The smallness and seeming absurdity of the story is actually what allows it to stir such impressive reflections on the nature of human relationships. Far from our modernized culture obsessed with individuality, Inisherin is an entire island that is mutually interdependent. After only a day or so has passed, everyone on the island knows of this friendship gone wrong, and everyone has their curiosities, diagnoses, and advice to relay. While much of it is played for laughs, there is a sincerity the movie carries through its entire runtime, never devolving into a disconnected fantasy. Mark Tildesley‘s production design helps with this: the scratchy jackets and muted dresses, the darkened pub and ordinariness of those who frequent it, the homes and animals and fireplaces – all of these things come together to seemingly drop us onto the island in the midst of the conflict, while Ben Davis‘ cinematography captures the artistic beauty of the locale with breathtaking grandeur. But in order for this precise tone and themes to work, the surrounding characters have to as well, and McDonagh gets terrific performances from the rest of his ensemble. Pádraic’s sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), and the local “village idiot,” Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan) are particularly memorable; their own stories intertwine well with the overarching themes of legacy, division, and life’s meaning, and Condon’s work playing a sensible woman caught in the midst of infantile immaturity amidst the men around her is terrific.
Such existential reflection is par for the course in McDonagh’s filmography (see In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths), and Banshees explores such things with the refinement, wit, and depth of a master playwright (his history in this regard certainly shines through brilliantly). In a time where the majority of people residing in a nation with the phrase “United” in their name want to split apart in the midst of their own civil war sentiments, such a film is a timely reminder of where this sort of conflict begins, and the way it destroys true, lasting peace for everyone involved. It seems Banshees would agree with Mother Teresa:
“Today, if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other – that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister.”