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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

The older we get, our worldview, our priorities and sometimes our very nature change. It gradually happens whether we like it or not. “It’s all a part of growing up”, we tell ourselves. And in a lot of cases, this is true. People just change. And a part of that change is the (sometimes) inevitable bummer of growing apart from those close to you, or those going through this change who choose to move on from you. Sometimes it’s a good thing as we look to detach ourselves from toxic relationships, but for others, it’s simply a matter of preference. We ALL go through this at one point or another as we change scenery within our lives: growing out of our school friends, breaking up or moving on from that one venomous partner, etc. Often times it’s never sudden.

Consider the relationship that is suddenly in turmoil between lifelong best friends in Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson). Set on the fictional island of Inisherin off the coast of Ireland in 1923 towards the end of the Irish Civil War, Colm and Pádraic are among the few faces that occupy the island’s sleepy little village. Nothing changes here. It’s a monotonous repeat of each day. Pádraic takes his farm animals for walks and grazing, he lets his beloved donkey Jenny into the house before his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) reprimands him for it, and like clockwork, he and Colm go to the pub at 2 o’clock. But one day, Colm has a change of heart. He doesn’t want to be friends with Pádraic anymore. He doesn’t want to do any of this anymore. Just like that. Could you do that? Or worse yet, would you be able to accept your best friend/partner/family member’s suddenly irrational change in heart towards you?

Filmmaker Martin McDonough (In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) hosts a reunion with his In Bruges players in Gleeson and Farrell, returning for yet another McDonough tragicomedy – one that has him dishing out both laughs and complete heartbreak in what, for my money at least, is his best film to date.

Seeing as it’s a big reunion, let’s compare the two central characters of both Banshees and In Bruges while we’re at it, or at least how McDonough introduces and develops his characters on their journeys. With In Bruges, we are shown in broad strokes who these characters are as individuals. Sure we aren't shown much in regards to their occupations, which is that of hitmen, ones who are hiding out in Belgium, but we are shown important ticks, quirks and defining characteristics that ultimately paint a picture of who they are and who they've been for the most part of their journeys within each other's lives, providing flashbacks that contextualize their relationship, particularly that of Colin Farrell's character and his emotional state. In Banshees, we are not shown what they were like before this falling out between them. No flashbacks to happier times. Just their present tense. All we know is that it’s vastly out of character for Colm to suddenly have a drastic change of heart like this. We know this is out of character for him because we are assured by Pádraic and everyone else that this is most peculiar. “You can’t just stop being friends with a fella!” Siobhán confronts Colm. “Why not?” Colm asks. “It’s not nice.” She’s right. It isn’t. Someone who, according to everyone, is normally a nice guy is suddenly not. But to us, he’s always been an asshole and that’s what Pádraic begins to wonder: if Colm has always been this evil. That’s what makes this such an interesting exercise in not only storytelling but character development through the revelations and even the non-revelations of its feuding former best friends. When people critique certain actions by important characters in movies or franchises they either love or hate, they rightfully (or wrongly) shout “that’s so out of character!” (the final season of Game of Thrones…we are looking at you). But here, we take each character’s word for it. For us, this is all we know of Colm to be, and when he does step out of character with what we have seen him as being selfish and cruel, we know it to be more in line with who he was and what everyone within the world of story has always associated with him being: a good guy. But he now finds Pádraic dull, and everything he says about him leads us to believe that he has never liked him in the first place. Just what did Pádraic do to him to warrant this change of heart?

“I just don’t like you no more.”

“But you liked me yesterday.”

The irony is that despite one of his few claims of wanting a change of scenery in fear of wasting his life away, he doesn’t appear to want to leave this small spit of land in the ocean – a place where nothing ever happens. Nothing ever changes, despite a war raging on in the mainland that will effectively change everything. Cannons are randomly heard and seen blasting just over the horizon. Irish brothers and sisters are suddenly fighting one another after years of growing and struggling together - opinions differing and hearts ultimately changing. It’s very obviously an allegory for the sudden break-up between Colm and Pádraic - with Colm’s actions and reasoning behind them making Pádraic’s character growth that much more heartbreaking to digest as a viewer.

In all honesty, I’m not much of a fan of myself. I often think about the glaring faults in my being from my looks to personality traits I find aggravating. And I’ll admit, I often rationalize these feelings to extreme degrees that are objectively untrue, but I still do it anyways because of the doubt that niggles in the back of my head. But there are certain constants in my life that make sticking around worthwhile: from a small selection of ultra-close friends, to family, to my significant other, and of course, to the loyal pets willing to fight the thunder that rumbles in the distance for me. Going back to how people change, how people grow up and grow apart, those things often happen gradually. But in Banshees, Colm has had a revelation overnight, one that we don’t see take place onscreen in the confines of the story. In this scenario, it’s impossible not to hypothesize ourselves in Pádraic’s shoes. He is the protagonist here of course, but seeing how he reacts to this sudden heartbreak of losing a friend, not to illness or a tragic accident, but by a personal decision to just not talk to him, is a dreadful thought to have to confront. He begins to doubt himself as a person - if he really is that dull and unwantable, beginning to think that everyone laughs behind his back. I do that as well, and that’s what makes Pádraic’s journey of self-worth hit so hard for me as I want him to know he is nice and kind, but I myself, wouldn’t believe it either even if it were told to me in this same situation.

Despite Colm giving Pádraic reasons for not wanting to be his friend, he just can’t fathom it. Everyone around him, from his sister to the apparent village idiot in Dominic (Barry Keoghan), has begun to accept this is a new reality in their community: Colm and Pádraic are no more. A vast change in their usual daily comings and goings that they’re just going to have to accept. But Pádraic just can’t. The only person to truly make this change work, refuses it. Like Pádraic, I too don’t deal with change well, and when something comes along and disrupts the flow, or lack of it even, everything seems to crumble. The bombs on the mainland don’t disrupt life here, but are often in the background as these two feud to extreme degrees, with Colm taking drastic measures to ensure Pádraic stays away. It feels like a folk fable - a tragedy with a message at the heart of it that needs us and its characters to take heed of. A prophetic witch roams the countryside, dishing out her unwanted predictions of looming doom, and despite Pádraic wanting to ignore the bombs and her boney finger pointing toward a grim future, he wants things to stay the same: To have breakfast with his sister and his donkey Jenny, take his livestock grazing and of course, hit the pub at 2 with his best mate Colm. It appears to be all so boring to not only us, but Siobhán and now Colm as well. But it’s the ideal life for Pádraic - a simple man only after the simple pleasures in life. It’s scary dealing with change, trust me, I know, but what makes this so heartbreaking is how cruel the change is for Pádraic and how he is unwilling to truly see that things will have to be different regardless of what he wants or even needs. Colm needs this change for his own well-being. Siobhán needs to leave for her own well-being. And it’s with her that we see the only character truly willing to change for the betterment of herself. Colm has a desire for change, but not enough for him to leave the island where he will actually experience it from the ground up. Complete and utter change is something characters refuse to even attempt over here, but it’s with her that we begin to wish, for Pádraic’s sake, that he will do the same and try new things - to step out of his comfort zone, and as Dominic suggests, “finally stand up for yerself.”

Pádraic’s miniature donkey Jenny is another wonderful, symbolic character at play here. Donkeys are consistently used as tragic allegories in literature and film, often enduring unimaginable cruelty at the hands of humanity. But here, it’s a perfect partner to Pádraic, a shade of colour that highlights the truly wonderful qualities in him. Donkeys are often kicked and punished for their stubborn nature in not only stories riddled with metaphors but in real life as well. Sadly, they’re a whipping post for people to take their frustrations out on. Despite Pádraic’s frustration with the whole situation, he never takes it out on her. Hell, he never takes it out on any animal, including Colm's loyal canine companion. Jenny follows him as a loyal companion wherever he goes and he too shows fierce loyalty to her that never falters. Essentially, Pádraic is a donkey to Colm - an animal with not much use to him other than unending loyalty but seemingly dull conversation. But unlike Colm, Pádraic relishes this friendship and once he is not allowed to be loyal anymore, he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself other than follow him to the end, hoping he changes his mind.

It’s hard to imagine this having any humour after all the emotionally taxing trials and tribulations our protagonist Pádraic goes through, but that’s the magic of Martin McDonough. Like the Coen brothers, he is able to see the humour in the cruelty before us that few are able to harness so effectively. His dialogue is often hilarious, even when pitched in the cruelest of conversations and circumstances. It’s this ensemble that allows for the tragedy of Banshees to reach touching highs and gut-wrenching lows. Kerry Condon as Pádraic's sister Siobhán quietly pieces together the film’s overarching themes of change and the need for change most effectively. She’s fed up with the island, and its people, and despite her love for her brother, fed up with his lack of desire to move on and look towards a future worth clutching at. She may not be regularly spoken about in the same manner as Gleeson and Farrell at the center of this battle, but she is the glue that allows for Banshees to have legs to march purposefully on. Barry Keoghan is as reliable as ever, proving to be the other sweet-hearted dunce that is a much-needed revelatory figure in Pádraic’s journey. Just like how Jenny the miniature donkey and Pádraic are drawn to each other, or Pádraic is drawn to Colm, Dominic is drawn to Pádraic’s struggle, sympathizing with him and showing unwavering loyalty as a much-needed ally because he sees a bit of himself in Pádraic. Similar to Pádraic, he’s a donkey, enduring unfathomable cruelty at frustrated hands stronger and smarter than he is. Thankfully he’s not just a throwaway plot device, but an important moving piece in an allegorical tragedy about change and moving on much like Siobhán is. And when Pádraic finally steps out of character, Dominic is the one who calls him out on it - working as a witness much in the same way as the audience: disappointed in his actions and words we know is unlike him. He’s a cleverly written character that accentuates important moments of character growth and regression.

Brendan Gleeson is wonderful once again here, having worked with both McDonough brothers before (Calvary in particular by the older McDonough, John, is an absolute masterpiece); he provides that reliable sense of ease in a role surprisingly difficult to adapt as a performer. Having known who Colm was before, he essentially has to undo most of that, a character in the middle of his own journey of self-discovery - developing new characteristics in order to keep Pádraic at a distance but still maintaining enough of his former qualities to keep a friendly and close relationship with the other townsfolk. We can’t fault him for wanting to move on and change, but it’s the manner in which he does it that somehow makes us both resent and, weirdly enough, admire him for it. He’s an asshole. But he also isn’t - from completely avoiding Pádraic, to behaving around others as if nothing has changed other than this friendship. He allows us to both hate and love him. That’s a tricky task for any performer and Gleeson does it effortlessly. Then we have Colin Farrell who churns out one of the great performances of the year: one that is genuinely funny, sincere, angry, frustrated, and ultimately, heartbreaking - right up until the final confrontation. Like his donkey companion(s), Pádraic is a simple man who just wants to be by his friend’s side through thick and thin, while sipping on a pint of course. But Colm doesn’t want him there. Unlike Gleeson’s tricky job of playing his character out of character in the grand context of their journey, Farrell remains who he always was before and this feud utterly devastates his character emotionally and mentally. We see him take these beatings through words and symbolic actions, but like Colm, who remains extremely stubborn in his decision, Pádraic is adamant to win him back, to convince his sister to stay with him, and to keep things the way they’ve always been. “Some things there’s no movin’ on from. And I think that’s a good thing”.

The Banshees of Inisherin is a true tragicomedy. One of the year’s best that is a resounding highlight of Martin McDonough’s ability in making you laugh as well as breaking your heart. It shows the power of friendship, but most importantly, loss and the change that comes through that, whether we want it or not. We’re only as good as the relationships around us, and it is up to us if we want to utilize it as a strength or a weakness when the time does call for us to change, for better or worse. Funny, beautiful and completely devastating, The Banshees of Inisherin is a McDonough masterclass and one of 2022’s truly great works.

Where you can watch it: HBO MAX (USA), Disney+ (UK), In theatres (Australia), In theatres (3rd March, SA)

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