One-line review: Breaking up is hard to do, and take.

London Irish (his own words), playwright and writer-director Martin McDonagh returns after five years, reuniting with his In Bruges (2008) duo: Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. The film is a sweeping account of an inexplicable breakup between two friends that leads to dire consequences for both. As is typical of McDonagh, everyone is unintentionally funny, flawed, and human.  

Trust McDonagh not to give the audience any crumbs of the good times between the friends. The film opens with a happy-go-lucky farmer and milkman, Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), walking to his best buddy, Colm Doherty’s (Brendan Gleeson) house for their daily trip to the local pub. Colm doesn’t answer the door, leaving Pádraic perplexed. Things get serious when Colm rebuffs him again in the pub. Fearing he may have said something when drunk, Pádraic goes over to apologize. But Colm says there’s nothing to apologize for, “I just don’t like you no more.” Pádraic’s reaction to this statement is a master class in acting from Farrell. The rest of the film revolves around Pádraic trying to come to terms with this breakup, going from agony to anger and even revenge.        

 Pádraic lives with his beloved sister Siobhán Súilleabháin (Kerry Condon); they even sleep in the same room. She is the beauty with brains who wants to escape the island. Siobhán suffers with her brother, but her counsel falls on deaf ears as Pádraic cannot let go. Instead, he confronts Colm repeatedly until Colm threatens to cut off his fingers if he is not left alone. No one takes Colm’s self-mutilation threat seriously because he is a fiddle player. But Colm does cut off his fingers, leading to an unfortunate unfolding of events that bring out the best and worst in the two men.

We do get to know why Colm breaks up with Pádraic. The much older Colm is staring at his mortality and wants to devote the rest of his time to creating music than wasting it drinking with the one-dimensional Pádraic. McDonagh’s dialogues in the scene where the two men debate what will be remembered over time: goodness or art are cutting and masterful. I suspect this scene made many audience members take stock of their friendships.      

The film’s title derives from the Irish folklore of the banshees who foretell death. In the movie, the banshee is the annoying old woman, Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), who isn’t trying to be nice but “accurate” about the impending deaths in Inisherin (an imaginary island). Another important character in this sparsely populated film is the island idiot Dominic (Barry Keoghan), who incidentally offers the most insightful comments on the breakup and otherwise. For example, his innocent question to  Siobhán if she’s ever been wild hits a nerve, making her almost lose it.    

The film is made for the big screen. Ben Davis’ camera captures the breathtaking landscape, which is expansive yet constrictive to the people living there. Carter Burwell deftly uses variations of the same motif throughout the film. McDonagh’s brief to him was not to use Irish music (the first piece of the movie is a Bulgarian folk tune). Burwell finally decided to use fairytale-like music, with simple instruments but serious tunes, giving a mystical quality to the otherwise grim story.  

But it’s the performances that make McDonagh’s biting script soar. Gleeson plays the somber Colm with such gravity we sense his turmoil even without words. He is the bedrock that allows the other actors to build castles. Farrell is pitch perfect as the big boy, who is all heart in happiness or anger. Initially, he has all our sympathy, but we slowly and grudgingly accept Colm’s point; he is dull and can be annoying as feck. Kerry Condon is luminescent as the kind sister, torn between her loyalty to her brother and wanting to escape the island. 

McDonagh’s genius is evident in his Dominic character. The three main characters, although different temperamentally, are solid and grounded. But Dominic is always on the verge of coming unhinged, adding a delicious imbalance to the film. And Barry Keoghan plays him with knife-like precision. Producer Broadbent points out that with his theater background. McDonagh likes working with his company of actors. Apart from Gleeson, a couple of actors from his delightful 2004 Oscar-winning short film, Six Shooter (link below), appear here: David Pearse as the priest and Gary Lydon as the cop Kearney. The film also has star turns by Pádraic’s best friend, the miniature donkey, Jenney, and Colm’s collie, who hilariously intervenes to prevent his self-mutilation spree. 

The Banshees of Inisherin is a clever movie that makes you laugh out loud even when you are being pulled into its dark clouds. Laughter, indeed, is the best medicine to deal with life’s tragedies.  

(Six Shooter, McDonagh’s 2004 short film)

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