Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in the film The Banshees of Inisherin. Photo by Jonathan Hession. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

It’s 1923. The Irish Civil War rages on into its final weeks. And on the fictional Irish island of Inisherin, Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) abruptly decides to end his friendship with Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell). 

What could Pádraic have done to end years of camaraderie without ceremony? Nothing, really. Pádraic is perfectly nice, perfectly inoffensive. The type of guy you’d like to grab a couple pints with every now and then, though maybe not more often than that. The thing is, Pádraic might be nice, but he’s not exactly stimulating. And Colm has taken a sudden interest in cutting out any and all frivolous things that might distract him from cementing his legacy and what he’s decided is his true calling – his music. Pádraic might be nice, sure. But people don’t remember Mozart because he was nice. Niceness doesn’t last. 

Pádraic, distraught at the loss of his companion, does everything he can to try and rebuild their friendship. But as Pádraic’s pursuits grow more fraught, Colm grows more staunch in his decision to cut Pádraic off cold turkey – leading to shocking repercussions. 

“The Banshees of Inisherin” – writer and director Martin McDonagh’s cynical, yet humane meditation on loneliness and legacy – considers the ever-precarious state of life with a deft and often droll hand. With this new film, McDonagh finds a sweet spot between the old and the new, delivering his best work in years. He returns to familiar faces, like Gleeson and Farrell, while adding some new ones, like scene-stealer Barry Keoghan. Much like some of his previous work, this particular fable deals in absurdism, and McDonagh is better than ever at balancing those fantastical elements against the story’s painfully human center, litigating its themes not just through a stellar script, but evolved worldbuilding and filmmaking. 

For a fictional island – and for the often ridiculous going-ons of its inhabitants – Inisherin feels deeply, achingly real, a place marked by routine and mundanity. In the opening of the film, Pádraic walks to Colm’s house to pick him up for their daily trek to the pub. He treads that path often – down to Colm’s seaside abode, back to the pub, and back to his own home. There’s a copious amount of walking done in Inisherin, the same feet plodding over the same footpaths day in and day out. The sweaters and waistcoats adorning every resident – designed with the utmost care by costume designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh – are weather-beaten by the elements, their material slightly worn, textured against the beautifully rugged Irish coast. The set design is just as meticulous. Dust rustles up when someone places a glass on the bar, and you can almost feel the creaks in a wooden chair when a familiar body sits down – same as they have everyday for years, and same as they will for years to come. 

With small town routine comes small town gossip. Although the war is right off the coast and the sound of far-off bombs a regular occurance, the residents of Inisherin are often bored – and news of Colm and Pádraic’s break up is big news. McDonagh has said his decision to set the story against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War was intended to give it gravitas, and he succeeds in bolstering the tension between Colm and Pádraic through contrast. The war is never far away, but the islanders talk about it sparingly, often with little more than a removed morbid fascination. Pádraic himself couldn’t care less about what’s going on just outside of his corner of the world. He has no grand ambitions and is content to spend his days working, drinking, and spending time with his friend, sister, and animals. Gunshots may echo in the distance, but for Pádraic, the end of this friendship is exponentially more cataclysmic. 

Colm is not interested in the micro, casting himself at odds with Pádraic. One of the very first images we see of the two together shows them in opposition. The camera peers in through the window at Colm, who’s obscured by Pádraic’s glass-reflected body as he looks inside. When Pádraic moves away, the ocean outside takes his place, swallowing Colm once again in a vast sea of obscurity – a man drowning in the expanse of his own legacy. In a few scenes, Pádraic follows Colm’s movements through an eye glass, his scope more narrow than ever, intently focused on nothing but his friend. 

Colm and Pádraic are framed as pitiable figures on opposing sides of a coin. Colm is smart enough to see the value of leaving something behind, curious enough to consider the idea of a life beyond Inisherin. His fatal flaw, which McDonagh’s script points out with equal parts humor and empathy, is his inability to accept that the world might not have in store for him what it did for the likes of Mozart. Colm thinks about himself in relation to the great composer often, and when he lectures Pádraic on the subject, Gleeson doesn’t play it as sneering, or holier-than-thou. He’s gentle, yet firm – gravely serious about the expectations of greatness he has laid out for himself, considering the possibility that his own path might be similar to someone like Mozart. So, when Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) swiftly corrects him on the century in which Mozart lived, it’s all the funnier and all the more tragic. Colm holds himself above the rest, staunch in his pursuit of greatness, but McDonagh never lets us forget that it might be a futile pursuit. Gleeson allows Colm’s acceptance of his mediocrity – the same mediocrity the vast majority of us possess, in the way that we will not be remembered amongst the Mozarts of the world – to sink quietly into his weathered features as the film goes on.

But Pádraic’s story might be the most tragic of all. He might have gone through life never realizing he should have been lonely, or frustrated, or bored. Farrell turns in one of his career best performances, wielding a secret weapon that he has always possessed. Despite a penchant for playing bad people, he’s rarely anything less on screen than achingly vulnerable – something McDonagh has capitalized on in the past in works such as “In Bruges.” Farrell has a childlike sense of wonder, with expressive brows that frame his good-natured face, exaggerating his expressions sometimes to a cartoonishly affable or petulant extent. But in “Banshees,” Farrell is not arousing our empathy for an otherwise unsympathetic character. Instead, he’s almost working backwards – a singular untainted thing suddenly twisted by outside forces beyond his control. 

All Colm’s sudden focus on legacy has wrought is turning one of the last nice things in his life spiteful and bitter. It’s an interesting point for a film to leave us with, as if McDonagh’s considering his own legacy, both as an artist and a human being. In 100 years, what will the world think of me? What will I have done while I’m here? Does any of it matter at all?

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.