As part of our coverage of the 79th Venice International Film Festival, Lex Briscuso reviews Martin McDonagh’s latest, The Banshees of Inisherin. Follow along with more coverage in our Venice Film Festival archives.
Friendships are complicated. Almost entirely filled with gray areas, these sorts of bonds can enrich our lives in ways our familial relationships may not and tear us down from our very foundations, turning us into people we never thought we would be. It is with that in mind that I sat down to watch Martin McDonagh’s latest film, The Banshees of Inisherin, a movie that highlights friendship in its most basic form. Despite its incredibly simple premise, the movie is a darkly hilarious and profoundly moving portrait of what keeps us together and pulls us apart. Colin Farrell and Brandon Gleeson shine as the film’s funny and complicated leading men, and the depths of their unique attachment are fascinating to uncover as the film progresses. They are so exciting to watch as a contentious duo and even sweeter to behold when they finally let their walls down with one another. The Banshees of Inisherin will make you want to call your friends and tell them you love them, and it will make you want to hold tight to your deepest bonds for as long as life will let you.
The Banshees of Inisherin follows Farrell’s Pádraic, an unassuming Irish man who is rejected by his longtime best friend, Colm (Gleeson), and told their friendship is over without explanation. Their fracturing bond gives way to startling consequences for both men amid the realities of life, aging, and what it means to be lonely.
McDonagh’s fourth feature is a thing of beauty from a visual perspective. Ben Davis’ cinematographic work is exceptional, and the landscape shots of the island of Inisherin — a fictional island off the coast of Ireland — are sweeping and breathtaking. It shows off Ireland in a way that feels like even if we have seen it before, it hasn’t quite been captured as beautifully. Ireland is known for its scenery, which is why films set there tend to make it a point to highlight it. But the shots in Banshees are specifically romantic yet forlorn in their framing and lighting — a perfect complement to the film’s tone, which begins with a playful warmth and nose-dives into futile hopelessness that spreads throughout the physical landscape as it does the emotional one. It sets the scene, and the setting plays a big part in the film’s plot. Pádraic and Colm’s homes have significant roles in the movie, as does their local pub. The nearby beach, the rolling green hills, and the island’s lake all factor into McDonagh’s latest story. And their importance to the parable doesn’t go unnoticed — nor can they be ignored due to the way they fully shape Inisherin into a living, breathing part of the story.
Despite its decision — a decision that most McDonagh pieces make, to be fair — to have the setting embody a character in the film, it doesn’t shine nearly as bright as Farrell, Gleeson, and their crumbling bond. Their chemistry is palpable and thick; The tensions between them bleed right into the air, and we feel it as deeply as all the supporting characters feel it. Farrell’s wide-eyed optimism in his quest to reconcile with his friend, who claims he simply “doesn’t like” him “anymore,” is some of his best, most down-to-earth work. It’s so utterly relatable, and his insistence on not giving up on their connection is both admirable and profoundly accessible. We’ve all been in friendships we weren’t ready to let go of or that we may have fought for harder than others, and Pádraic represents all those complicated emotions. He is all at once self-assured, scared, and deeply troubled by the situation he finds himself in, and it is intriguing to watch him press his luck in such an innocently desperate way.
As for Colm, he’s just as accessible in a different way. His decision to break off his friendship with Pádraic is puzzling — especially on an island with very few other native folks around — but his reasoning hits home in a deep way when he admits his feelings to his friend (with the hope that will keep him away for good). Colm is just as relatable for his struggle to create something he is proud of as Pádraic is for his insistent pursuit of Colm’s approval and affection. Both goals are admirable and integral parts of the human experience. Gleeson is equally as strong as Farrell, yet his performance is more reserved. He keeps his emotions buried within, which complements Farrell’s fast-talking character, who does a lot of adorable babbling throughout the film. He’s incredibly emotionally intelligent, which is a significant part of why this struggle between them is so compelling. It’s not petty or superfluous.
The biggest delight of this film, even more so than Farrell and Gleeson’s performances, is the lengths it will go. When you hear the premise, it’s hard not to wonder how they plan on making the straightforward plot engaging for an hour and forty minutes. But the stakes are continually raised, not only verbally, but physically, throughout the film. Colm doesn’t mince words with Pádraic, which lends itself to a very gripping series of events that presents itself as a battle of wits, with the consequences being all the more permanent than anything they could have to say to one another. It would be doing the film a disservice to give any specific spoilers. Still, those consequences are alarming and sadly preventable — which proves that both of our leading characters find they have statements to make. They’re simply trying to get through to one another, and isn’t that what we’re always doing with our friends? Trying to make ourselves heard and, by extension, understood. The stakes of this film work so well because Pádraic and Colm refuse to hear one another, that is, until the movie’s poignant final moments.
Banshees got a 15-minute standing ovation during its Venice Film Festival premiere, and though it doesn’t at first glance appear like a film that would, it’s not hard to see why it did. Its themes are easy to empathize with because they are born from feelings that come with connecting with those around us. We can’t force people to like us or want to connect with us; All we can do is try to show them our most authentic selves and hope that they find something to which they can weld their hearts. Friendship is special, and deep ones are even more singular. It’s easy to find yourself full of regret when one slips away, as they tend to do as people get older, change, and grow in and out of themselves. It’s scary to lose a friend, just as frightening as it is to make one. But when you find the ones you’re truly meant to surround yourself with, as The Banshees of Inisherin shows us, nothing, not even the direst of actions, can keep you apart forever.