Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores the tragic male friendships at the heart of two collaborations between Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges and The Banshees of Inisherin.
When Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin premiered in 2022, it reunited two actors we hadn’t seen together in well over a decade: Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell.
Their first appearance together was in McDonagh’s 2008 debut feature, In Bruges. One can view the two films as companion pieces on platonic male friendship and the complexity of men’s mental health. Both films, at their core, focus on men processing profound grief. With In Bruges, that sadness erupts from the unintentional murder of a young boy during a contract killing. Ray (Farrell) is wracked with guilt, and Ken (Gleeson) is at a loss for how to help him. Especially after he receives orders to assassinate his friend for what he’s accidentally done.
In Banshees, the characters’ despair isn’t born from what one man did to another. It’s from what one man did to himself. Colm (Gleeson) realizes one day that he’s fettered his life away. He copes with this revelation by displacing blame for his wasted life onto his dull best friend, Padraic (Farrell). Colm tells Padraic that he won’t be speaking to him anymore so he can refocus his life. And any time that Padraic tries to initiate a conversation, he’ll slice off one of his fingers. Colm’s afraid that he won’t be able to leave a lasting impression on the world. This anxiety-driven fear leads him to cut himself off at the knees. Or, more specifically, at the knuckles.
Bruges and Banshees are very different stories. But Farrell and Gleeson’s performances spiritually link them together. At first glance, their characters across both films feel diametrically opposed. But there are certain emotional traits the actors convey that intrinsically link them together. It’s the childlike, foolhardy brashness of Farrell’s characters and the amiable friendliness that Gleesons’ embodies.
With Ray and Padraic, Farrell’s characters share a wild streak of impulsiveness. Ray is utterly unfiltered. He lets every thought that comes to his head escape his lips, regardless of how relevant or racist it is. Farrell plays him uninhibited by shame, not just in sharing his thoughts but in sharing his emotions too. Ray, despite being a killer, has no qualms about showing vulnerability with Ken, sincerely communicating his grief.
While the inciting incident is not the same, the self-centered impulsiveness Farrell used with Ray remains with Padraic. Padraic knows that Colm wants to be left alone, but he can’t seem to stop himself. Again and again, he confronts Colm, knowing full well – but not truly believing – what his friend said he’ll do. Padraic isn’t concerned about what happens tomorrow. He’s too focused on what’s going on today and how it affects his life. In other words, he fails to see the forest for the trees. And it costs his best friend parts of himself he’ll never get back.
The similarities between Gleeson’s Ken and Colm are more subtle. The easiest thing to initially notice is the undeniable warmth Gleeson exudes. He’s like the kind but bristly uncle anyone would want in their family. But Gleeson conveys that compassion in different ways across both films. It’s readily apparent how Ken feels about Ray in In Bruges, but those feelings are kept more hidden in Banshees. When they do emerge, they come through Gleeson’s actions rather than his words.
After consciously uncoupling with Padraic, Colm watches a cop punch him to the ground. Without hesitation, he trounces over to his old friend, picks him up, and helps him get back home. Even though he says nothing, there is a sense of resigned duty to his old friend. He may have distanced himself from Padraic, but that doesn’t mean they’re enemies. Even if that is hard for Padraic to ultimately understand.
Farrell and Gleeson’s heartfelt approach to conveying complex masculine emotions is why Bruges and Banshees leave a profound impact. It still feels rare to see platonic male friendship in a movie where the emotional interplay is the point. Much of McDonagh’s work, especially his play The Lonesome West, are about masculine emotions. He pours that intentionality into Bruges and Banshees. Yes, gun fights and bodily dismemberment abound in both films–and McDonaghs work at large–but those aspects are secondary to why Bruges and Banshees have lasting appeal.
Beyond the pitch-perfect performances by Gleeson and Farrell, I find their on-screen relationship is so dynamic because we can actually tell their friends off-screen. Their character’s friendship feels authentic because their real-life friendship is authentic. It crystallized the moment the two first met just after Farrell got sober. As Farrell mentioned in an interview with CBS,
“He went to a minibar that looked like it hadn’t worked since the ’50s, and he opened it up, and he pulled out two bottles of water, and he went, ‘Still or sparkling?’ And just in that moment, I swear to God, it’s the sweetest thing. The simplicity of that gesture told me there is a man that’ll look after you. There’s a man that’ll take care of you. There’s a man that considers people.”
Is that not exactly how you would imagine Ray describing Ken or Padraic describing Colm? Gleeson also shared his thoughts on their friendship in the same interview. “I have known a lot of kind men in my life,” Gleeson said. “I’ve been lucky about that. You know, my father was a kind man, and I knew kind friends who were there for you. I don’t find it odd, but I knew immediately – I knew immediately with [Farrell]. So, that’s why the friendship lasted, because he’s somebody who considers people to an extraordinary degree.”
With a lasting friendship like their own, we can only hope Farrell and Gleeson team up for another film. Only time will tell if McDonagh will complete his “Tragic Buddy Comedy” trilogy. But regardless of when or if that happens, the film will live and breathe on the power of these two actors, their on and off-screen relationship, and their skills at surfacing honest portraits of male friendship.
Related Topics: The Great Performances