Jenny, a bell-wearing miniature donkey, once trotted with delight beside her effortlessly easygoing human companion, Pádraic Súilleabháin. So did the horse he keeps and the cattle he corrals. Now they warily keep their distance from a man whose countenance is creasing into something more corrosive and consuming — a transformation into a different beast of burden. Meanwhile, Colm Doherty’s dog might still happily hop on hind legs to dance on demand with his fiddle-playing master. But he has also sniffed out the abrupt, abject cruelty Colm has directed at his longtime friend Pádraic. It’s a cruelty that Colm is committed to carrying out with a perseverance that will only turn painful and destructive.
Ah, but Colm will first pen his greatest song yet, “The Banshees of Inisherin.” A fixture of Irish folklore, banshees are creatures said to foretell death by screaming or shrieking. Inisherin still has a fair share of banshees, but they can save their voice these days. Men like Pádraic and Colm levy their own curses upon themselves … and certainly bellow loudly enough as they do. The Banshees of Inisherin is the latest spiked melange of melancholy and misanthropy from British-Irish playwright and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Martin McDonagh. Having addressed American rage and racism in 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has returned to a scenario when Irish eyes are decidedly not smiling. It also reunites him with Colin Farrell (as Pádraic) and Brendan Gleeson (as Colm), the co-stars of the inventively comic and intricately bleak In Bruges (McDonagh’s first, and still finest, feature film).
Set in Ireland circa 1923, Inisherin chronicles the consequences of Colm’s on-the-spot decision to openly deride, and deny any further friendship, to Pádraic. Afternoon pints and idle chatter about the contents of Pádraic’s pony’s droppings have become routine. But Colm can’t abide by them any longer. Colm isn’t sick. He won’t be dead any sooner than the rest of us. It’s just that if Colm is going to write a new tune, he can no longer listen to his pal’s old song. He openly resents time wasted on “chats with a limited man” and demands Pádraic never talk to him again. The way Pádraic prattles on over pints is his shield for something he knows but cannot quite express. He is deeply incurious about anything beyond the island borders. Of course, the upside to keeping your head down is that someone’s less likely to take it off. “Good luck to ye, whatever it is yer fightin’ about,” Pádraic says in response to ringing cannons of civil war on the mainland. McDonagh doesn’t oversell the allegory here, letting those reports ripple across the water just enough to see how time and tide too often create waves under which everyone can break.
“Don’t you ever get lonely?” Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon) asks him once Colm initiates his vow of isolation. Siobhán’s implication is that maybe the mainland is a better place for both of them … but mainly her. If all it takes to please Pádraic is the slow passing of time until his death, well, “I’m sure you could do that anywhere,” Siobhán says. Everyone wonders or worries about their own intellectual inferiority at some juncture. When that doubt is cast by a sibling or dear friend, it’s especially distressing. Pádraic doesn’t understand what the big deal is anyway. He’s a nice guy. A good guy. Nobody has ever told him he’s dumb.
In a year when he has delivered an unexpectedly astonishing impersonation of Werner Herzog and been easily the best thing about a bloated Batman behemoth, Farrell delivers a turn here that exceeds them all. Deep down, Pádraic knows the ways in which he tries to change his stars to hopefully regain Colm’s friendship are cancerous to his soul. The tears he loosens after Pádraic takes a public beating for berating someone might be the deepest gut punch of Farrell’s impressive career; they pack an even deeper wallop because Colm has given Pádraic silent comfort and Pádraic strains against his every fiber to abide by Colm’s wish that he just shut the hell up. Of course, Pádraic cannot stay quiet forever. To do that would prove right what everyone thinks about him. But if Pádraic persists, Colm tells him, well, he’ll resort to specifically drastic measures. And anyone who’s seen a McDonagh movie knows: The threat is not hyperbole.
That’s because Colm doesn’t view pride as a sin worth copping to in the confessional every Sunday. This is yet another great role among so many for Gleeson, and one that allows him to explore the righteousness and wickedness within Colm. He’s a man who gets himself tossed out of the church for challenging conversations that are both comic and cosmic and somehow, against his understanding, develops a deeper tenderness for Pádraic even as he can’t stand to be around him. For the most part, Inisherin is a pretty great parable about where Colm and Pádraic’s pride will go before their respective falls — one shot through with a chilling spectral fatalism and perfectly pragmatic pessimism. Where Inisherin falters is in McDonagh’s over-reliance on a structure of magpie jokes surrounding Pádraic’s interactions with the people of Inisherin. McDonagh’s comedy always tends toward the loquacious and circuitous, and that certainly applies here. But it’s missing his usual verbally violent verve, and the punchlines tend to involve the denizens of Inisherin providing more answers in the form of questions than a Jeopardy! episode; they also do so with the sort of overcooked tick Oirish accent that attempts to distract from how few of these jokes land. That people repeat things so often to Pádraic because they believe him a dim-bulb dullard is apparent the first time. The fifth time. And the 25th time.
Such comedy also never reconciles well with the tragedies toward which Colm and Pádraic’s clash leads — especially as those banshees of Inisherin herald hints of death. In fact, it seems to disproportionately punish one of the men when both of them prove indirectly responsible for irreversible acts. The problem is not that the other man isn’t made aware of what his actions have wrought. It’s that McDonagh doesn’t convey how that culpability is what truly subverts his goals and sinks his soul; he’s too busy rather simply emphasizing that malice isn’t the answer. Inisherin has many pleasures not worth spoiling (even as the trailer tosses out a few of them) in a film that’s definitely worth seeing. Farrell and Gleeson are terrific, and there is yet more impeccable production design this year from Mark Tildesley (Empire of Light), an appropriately mournful score from Carter Burwell that conjures just enough evocation of similar work for the Coen Brothers, and masterful moments of melancholy. While it shares dark turns with In Bruges, it simply lacks the same cohesion, confidence or comedy that crackles with truth about existential entropy. Maybe those banshees could have warmed up a bit more after all.