An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

"The Banshees of Inisherin" Movie Review by Dan Webster

One of the most popular movie themes is the question of what happens when love ends. Some of the greatest literature ever written, much less the cinema it gets adapted into, is based on stories of romantic heartbreak.

But what about friendship? It’s a fact of life that relationships of all types end. Filmmakers, thought, just don’t seem as interested in telling tales of pals – especially male pals – parting ways.

Not unless, of course, some great sense of drama is involved. In the 1959 adaptation of the novel “Ben-Hur,” for example, Charlton Heston’s title character is betrayed by his longtime, ambitious friend Messala (played by Stephen Boyd). In the 2002 movie version of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” Edmond Dantes (played by Jim Caviezel) is betrayed by his envious friend Fernand (played by a scene-stealing Guy Pearce).

In Martin McDonagh’s film “The Banshees of Inisherin” – set in the year 1923 – nothing so dramatic occurs. One day Colm (played by Brendan Gleeson) simply tells his buddy Pádraic (played by Colin Farrell) that he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. And he doesn’t say why.

Naturally this doesn’t sit well with Pádraic. Both he and Colm are lifetime residents of Inisherin, an island off Ireland’s coast – an island, by the way, that is only a figment of writer-director McDonagh’s imagination. The sad fact is that neither of the two islanders has a particularly interesting life.

Pádraic, for example, lives with his sister Siobahn (played by Kerry Condon). And in between meals of porridge, that Siobahn fixes, and tending to his few animals, Pádraic’s main activity is to head to the local pub and drink pints of stout while chatting with Colm.

Colm at least has his music. And it becomes clear that, seemingly stricken with a sense of mortality, he would rather work on a song he is composing than sit around talking aimlessly with Pádraic. What’s confusing, both to Padraic and to some of us sitting in the audience, is why he can’t do both. That, in fact, is the question that Siobahn, seeing the pain that the breakup is causing her brother, puts to Colm. His response is that she, too, feels similarly.

And he’s not wrong. Before long we learn that Siobahn harbors dreams that extend further than the narrow road that leads from her house to what passes for Inisherin’s cultural center … namely, the pub.

What is clear is that McDonagh, whose past films include the crime caper “In Bruges” – which also starred Gleeson and Farrell – and the 2017 drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” isn’t interested in just creating a community of charming characters. Yes, “The Banshees of Inisherin” does feature a priest with a temper, a policeman with an abusive nature, the policeman’s abused son and an old woman who looks like one of Macbeth’s witches, and who, like them, foretells a less-than-favorable future.

That bleak future, by the way, involves not just Colm and Pádraic but both the policeman’s son, Dominic (played by Barry Keoghan), and Pádraic’s beloved miniature donkey.

McDonagh could be attempting to create a parable with all this. Throughout the film, sounds of gunfire can be heard coming from the mainland – signs of the Irish Civil War that followed Ireland’s own War of Independence. And like that conflict, which saw former allies become bitter enemies, the same gradually happens between our two Inisherin ex-friends.

Yet McDonagh simply doesn’t provide enough of an explanation for why Colm in particular is so set on alienating Pádraic in a way that he has to know will cause his former friend, a limited and lonely man, undue pain. Nor does he explain the drastic lengths that Colm is willing to go to just to prove his point, lengths that involve a pair of shears and a few missing digits.

It's always good to see Gleeson and Farrell work, and both Condon and Keoghan pull off moving performances – in Keoghan’s case particularly so.

But while there are no banshees in McDonagh’s film, the title of which doubles as the title of Colm’s song, there might as well be.