Island Insanity

Colin Farrell and his pet donkey in “The Banshees of Inisherin”

There are some films that I can admire. Films with great performances or accomplished scripts or cinematography that’s incredible…but the story doesn’t do it for me. This year, there have been a handful of such films. Incredible, award-worthy performances paired with tales of insanity and cruelty. Tár is a good example. Cate Blanchett is phenomenal in director Todd Field’s film. Yet the story felt like experiencing a slow-moving car crash. An artist blinded by ambition; Tar is a conductor willing to destroy others as she runs along her self-destructive path.

A tale of Irish insanity, “The Banshees of Inisherin”, may not be your cup of tea.

Writer/Director Martin McDonagh who hails from London, is known for his award-winning plays about characters in Ireland. He’s also directed a few films: “In Bruges” (2008), “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017). His latest, “The Banshees of Inisherin” (2022) reunites stars Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson. Their chemistry is the best part of the film.

Martin McDonagh’s works feature equal helpings of comedy and cruelty. There seems to be a theme he explores: how much can a person endure before they break? Before that person has a fit of rage or goes insane? “In Bruges” also starred Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. In that film, they play hitmen with Farrell’s character grieve-stricken and fearing a cruel boss. The tagline gives a good indication of the film’s tone: “Shoot first. Sightsee later”.

A banshee is a creature of Irish folklore; a wailing woman who foretells tragedy. In this film, the banshee is a shrouded old woman who delights in revealing portents of death. She’s one of a handful of characters that are based on Irish stereotypes. “Banshees” also features the tortured artist, the village idiot, the village priest, and the spinster sister.

“Banshees” tells the tale of a lifelong friendship that’s come to an abrupt end. Colm (Gleeson) has decided that he must concentrate on his music to leave behind a legacy. This comes as quite a shock to Pádraic (Farrell), who believes Colm is his best friend and drinking mate. The island of Inisherin doesn’t exist. It’s a an amalgam of Irish isles, but the Irish culture it depicts will be recognizable to anyone who’s traveled to Ireland.

McDonagh sets the tone right off with Pádraic walking through the village in an amicable mood. He’s saying hello to neighbors and friends as he strolls by the seaside and a rainbow appears behind him. It seems an idyllic setting. The setting is perfect for isolating these characters who have nowhere to turn to get away from each other. An island can also be a place where one goes stir-crazy – the isolation can drive a person mad.

Later, he’ll notice the far-off gunfire on the Ireland shore. It’s the Irish Civil War and the costumes and village buildings set the date for the period between 1922-23. It’s a foreshadowing of the quiet battles and tragedy that will soon engulf the village.

“It was a particularly bloody and awful civil war between people who had been on the same side just six months or a year before, and who all more or less believed in the same thing,” McDonagh said. “The suddenness of it and the brutality of it was something that I wanted to mirror in a way.” — Martin McDonagh in a video interview for the SF Chronicle, Oct 2022

The dialogue is witty, and rapid-fire and the performances are authentic and heart-felt. There’s a lightness to the story with Pádraic’s relationship with his animals and his dear sister, Siobhan. There’s drinking and carousing and amusing misunderstandings. And then the film takes a turn to the absurd. The trailer gives it away, so this isn’t a spoiler as such, but Colm decides he’s going to cut off his finger every time Pádraic speaks to him.

Colm is a well-respected fiddle player in the village. He’s working on a composition. His cottage is decorated with beautiful artifacts from his travels, and he teaches and performs down at the pub. A seemingly reasonable, well-educated man. Yet here he is, threatening to slice off his fingers. It’s an act of insanity. The plot spirals off into more absurdity as if we’ve left reality and fallen into an Irish folktale.

Before the credits roll, we’ll see a burial, a burning building, and a tragic suicide. Pádraic will transform from a nice man, a simple man but a kind one, into a vengeful creature. He’s now a mean-spirited, despondent man. Many audience members will roll with the absurdity and enjoy spending time with these fine actors. The sudden shift to violence and insanity in the narrative didn’t work for me.  I find cruelty and abuse off-putting. Others may see the farce and find it amusing, but I’m not one to take delight in cruelty, even when it’s absurd. “Banshees” is a film I can admire even if it’s not one I ultimately, enjoyed.

Drinks with Films rating: 1 pint of Guinness down at the local, plus a bag of Salt n Vinegar Crisps for the outstanding performance of Barry Keoghan (out of 5)

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