The Boring Sneering of The Banshees of Inisherin

Director: Martin McDonagh Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan Running Time: 114 minutes

The McDonagh brothers have always been hopeless miserabilists, and it’s proven to be a lucrative lot in life for them on stage and screen alike. Martin the Younger has drawn many plaudits for his ability to draw from the literary tradition of the island that he has occasionally visited, breathing – or perhaps scoffing – new life into stuffy old Irish archetypes, the better and more universally to demonstrate that, while it undoubtedly bleakly depressing and mortifyingly hopeless to be Irish, that is only because it is bleakly depressing and mortifyingly hopeless to be alive at all. 

The words of Martin McDonagh’s poisonous, pitying pen were brought to life to great effect on screen for In Bruges, thanks in large part to the performances of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. Through their expressive eyes and double act chemistry, McDonagh lines could find room in that film for the blows to land more softly. Reunited, they unfortunately have a harder time cracking through the contempt in The Banshees of Inisherin. Mulling very similar themes to his plays, albeit in a medium McDonagh actually respects, there are no new tricks to be found by the old dog in his extended contemplation and documentation of The Thick Bastards of Dickhead Island. 

Set in the 1920s on the fictional island of Inisherin, Banshees is diddly-idle handed Ireland as McDonagh’s plaything; all old heads shrinking under shawls, shitetalk spoken in fields, a place where there is nothing at all to do except go to the pub. The camera bares down on the island like an ominous Fáilte Ireland, the confines felt of island life in the gray waves. Brendan Gleeson’s despairing fiddle player Colm Doherty has had as much of it as he can stand, or at least, he’s had as much as he can stand of his drinking buddy Pádraic Súilleabháin, a nice but dull-witted farmer played by Colin Farrell. 

Abruptly, Colm declares that he doesn’t like Pádraic anymore and no longer wishes to speak to him. Ever. The more that Pádraic fails to understand or accept this, the more adamant Colm becomes, to the point where he warns his former friend that he’ll cut off one of his own fingers every time that Colm tries to make conversation. Colm seems to feel the better for cutting his friend out of his life, a turn of the century toxic Twitter thread come to life, focused on his own mindfulness. Pádraic, dramatically drawn to his own shortcomings, wilts.

We seep in Pádraic’s unhappiness, the only connections left to him being with his prized animals, his loving but lonely sister Siobhán and the hangabout presence of local eedgit Dominic, played by a Barry Keoghan as reliant on tics as his director is on thicks. The rejection that wounds poor, simple Pádraic deeply, and the seemingly pointless row escalates to the point that both men are spiting their own faces, and worse. That the Irish Civil War happens to be waging on the mainland, with the locals of Inisherin having long lost track of the sense and the sides of it all, would be McDonagh showing his hand if he could keep focus on it long enough without rolling his own eyes. 

The Irish and our wars and our ways, our stubborn simple-mindedness and deliberate depression, all unravel as metaphors, to be expanded out into d’unbelievable ordeal of the human condition. Siobhán Súilleabháin is dutifully desperate, let-down by the inadequacies of island folk, all shown here as hypocricrates, idiots, or hypocritical idiots. She’s played with a gentle touch by Kerry Condon, but it would be easier to meet McDonagh’s sympathy for her if he came by it honestly, if he didn’t take it as a given for her, for all of his characters, that she be fundamentally and inevitably unhappy. As is she’s forlornly 2D, like the women representing Ireland on political comics of old.

The In Bruges boys remain game, but it’s diminishing returns. Farrell has always been at his best with sad characters, and he might shine relatively brightest with this material, his posture balled up like a confused little boy. Gleeson remains an exceptional actor, but there is simply no more pathos for the McDonagh brothers to mine from bringing him the same world-weary character again and again and again. No matter how wrinkled his worry lines furrow, no matter how deeply he digs, the well of tears has been tapped dry for the gently grumpy giant. We’ve heard this song before and the more it’s repeated, the more trying it becomes. Gleeson can shoulder any dramatic weight a writer is willing to give him, but there’s only so far he and Farrell can carry it to new places; Inisherin ultimately is just Craggy Island if everyone listened to Radiohead.  

There’s no warmth to the coldness. It isn’t that McDonagh doesn’t construct his stories deftly, and he’ll never lose his ability to toss off funny barbs. But scraping so hard from the bottom of the barrel with these Irish stereotypes sketches them thinner than ever, and one’s patience along with them. Having such little regard for his characters has to spill onto the audience eventually – McDonagh’s casual cruelty, his glibness, his pity, they’re weighty anchors that don’t allow for a truly empathetic, cathartic, emotionally sincere story to grow. It’s award winning wallowing, but when the King renders his garments this violently, you start to wonder if he really wears any clothes underneath. Perhaps it’s easier to notice when the digs are closer to home. We’re well able for a slagging, but the drooling, desperate jokes that the Irish are taken for in McDonagh’s works wear out their welcome, and when the laughs quit coming, you see how shallow the abyss actually is underneath. That’s the reality of gallows humour – it’s not as potent if you won’t actually die. Martin wrote The Beauty Queen of Leenane nearly 30 years ago now, at what point does the hand-wringing over us poor, useless creatures become Jaggeresque jiving?

Inisheerin, McDonagh shows, is a hopeless place, filled as it is with all the typical, terrible characters you find in every Irish village – the gobshite, the gossip, the poet, the sad young wan, the creepy auld wan, etc. There is one that’s conspicuously absent though, and that’s the Sneer – his space is reserved behind the camera. 

The Banshees of Inisherin is in Irish cinemas 21st October 2022.

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

27 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I completely agree with the review regarding lazy irish stereotypes portrayed by the writer/director.
    I left the screening feeling ashamed to be Irish. Finally a precise review of this movie that is Frank and not fawning like most reviewers I’ve read. Well done!

  2. I saw the film today and was dissapointed. I found it depressing and boring in the extreme with no counterbalancing lightness.
    The acting was let down by the stereotypical portraits of comic Irish citizens bordring on stupidity.
    I cannot understand why the critics have rated this hogwash so highly.

  3. Saw it last night. Left me feeling awful; couldn’t articulate why, but you have so eloquently. Thank you. In short: Father Ted ‘if everyone listened to Radiohead.’ So well put.

  4. An appropriately acidic review. The film itself is tepid nonsense, with a wearying paint by numbers approach from Gleeson and Farrell. A complex metaphor for the Civil War they say? Please. Over done, but under cooked. The only half attractive thing about this film is the evocative title.

  5. Spot on review. McDonagh doesn’t understand the culture of the West. The inadequacy causes him to resort to stereotype and shock value. He’s no Tom Murphy. He doesn’t have his knowledge nor depth and,most importantly, his subtlety. Gleeson and Farrell are better actors than this.

  6. This was one of the worst films I have ever seen. I am a huge fan of “In Bruges” and “3 Billboards” was also great.
    This film, however, feels like it was written by a completely different person to the aforementioned.
    It is pointlessly absurd. Wafer thin characters, making idiotic choices with no clear motivation. I laughed just twice during the entire runtime and gleaned more joy from ripping it to shreds afterwards.
    2022 was probably the worst year in cinema in living memory and this was a low point.

    1. My da rarely watches films but every time a McDonagh film comes out and the usual Irish hype machine begins ( “McDonaghs Irish ya know he made a film isn’t that great” ) it’s sort of inevitable I’ll be asked “have you seen this?.

      I’m somewhere between a casual fan and film buff so a tiny bit insecure sometimes of “not getting it” but me and my da looked at each other about an hour in (he has bladder issues so had to use the loo) after pausing it and we’re basically like “should we bother watching the rest?”.

      It’s sort of reassuring many film buffs also thought it was rubbish / boring / depressing.

      The greatest sin it committed from my eye for realism was Colin Farrells hair. Was it dye or a wig or wa?

      Glad you had the guts to post this, because no doubt the usual pseudo intellectual crowd/ Irish film nativists would be onto you for “begrudgey” and so on.

      One of the most disappointing film experiences I’ve ever had.

  7. I’m still not sure why I was supposed to care about either of the main characters. This movie didn’t do a good job of making me relate or empathize with anyone other than Padric’s sister.

    I am genuinely angry I paid to see the vulgar imagery, with nothing for a pay off.

    1. Agree with all of the above! Saw it on Netflix last night and kept looking over my shoulder as if to question my sanity with my imaginary audience. I watched the film through gritted teeth. Poorly written, poor dialogue. A bad stage play with an absurd premise.

  8. I absolutely agree with every line of this review. I felt exactly the same. I thought I was going mad when I saw all the glowing reviews towards it. Gleeson is the only one that grounds it in any reality. Farrell is doing a wide eyed Father Dougal impression and Keoghan is doing a lot of “acting”. If the film had been set in France, they would all have had garlic around their necks and berets and stripy jumpers on. Awful awful movie.

  9. Thank you!!!!
    I thought I was going mad when read all these reviews about it being the best film ever. I’ve rarely been as bored or uninvested. 2 tedious hours watching tedious men being tedious

  10. Let me join the chorus, good review Luke. I also thought the film was shite. while those around me love it.
    As a son of an Irish immigrant, maybe I’m not so close to the land, but I never heard my father ( who was a lad at the time the film is set) , or any of his relatives use any coarse language ever, maybe they are just the exceptions, small point but why pretend you are in a time and place but then talk like its 2023 ? not believable.
    and what an insult to all musicians to think one would self mutilate a hand that held a fiddle for so little reason! Maybe we are to think its a Harry Potter film and Brendan can magically grow his hand back?
    just rubbish.

  11. Great review. Sometimes the parts are greater than the sum… Beckett by numbers. The way Cormac McCarthy tries to be Hemingway.

  12. There’s more enjoyment and logic in a Daffy Duck cartoon. What a waste of money to sit and watch this awful movie. Being from Ireland I forgave the initial syrupy, cliched moments but they quickly congealed into insults.

  13. Brilliant review. I hope Martin McDonagh gets wind of it. Very boring film. Magnificent scenery but other than that nothing to recommend it. An Irish man or woman would NEVER have come up with this nonsense. I know his parents are Irish but he was born and bred in the UK. Some howlers in there e.g they didn’t know much about the civil war yet one of the characters referred to someone reading the daily paper. Someone else said another character needed “tough love” but that’s an American expression from the 1980’s. Also back in the 1920’s women weren’t allowed in pubs. someone send him a copy of Peig quick! And while you’re at it tell him to watch ‘Song of Granite’ a low key deeply moving Irish language film from a few years ago. The promotional juggernaut is in full effect in LA apparently. I could tolerate Cinematographer but that’s it.

  14. Agree fully with Luke Dunne’s review. What a waste of two hours. Depressing; far fetched and impossible to engage with any of the characters. Can’t understand why it’s nominated for so many Oscars albeit acting by Barry, Kerry, Colin and Brendan was good. Would love to hear their real thoughts on this ‘begora’ movie! Without them, the movie would be seen for what it is, depressing nonsense.

  15. What a relief it is to read this review and your comments! I have nothing to add. We’re all in agreement: it’s a very Rotten movie.

  16. Easily the most overrated picture of the year. It’s depressing to think this might be most successful and critically acclaimed ‘Irish’ film ever – and might even win the best picture at the Oscars. Nothing against the performances, which were great – especially Barry Keoghan – but Martin McDonagh really is running low on fuel, creatively. Take away the finger-chopping and it becomes more like an episode of Glenroe, ” I don’t like yuh anymore, leave me alone! ” . Also, sometimes it just sounded a little too modern, and even Father Ted-esque in dialogue (apparently Irish slang has never changed over a 100 years). I kept thinking JM Synge’s islanders would struggle understand the way most of these ‘characters’ speak, never mind all the anachronisms and basic history he gets wrong, and nobody seems to know any Irish either . Anyway, the stage Irishman is alive and well in MacDonagh’s patronising and pretentious film – and just goes to show what he, and much of the world still thinks of us.

  17. I loved the cinematography of the film. The thing that jarred with me the most was the modern speak and terminology used that seemed so out of place with the setting such as ‘judgy’, ‘nutjob’ and ‘tough love’.

  18. I fully agree with this review. I think another point that needs to be said is how much the film takes from The Field.
    The Bull – Harris/Brendan Gleeson
    The Dunce son – seanbean/Farrell
    The village idiot – John Hurt/Keogh
    The put upon lonely woman – Fricker/Conden

    The field wasn´t widely accepted by American audiences due to its dark themes. Which is the crux of the matter. For Irish cinema to be recognised does it have to go to the well of diddly aye and oirsihims?

    The strong points about the film are the sense of place, time and the lonliness of Island Life. Picture the film played straighter, modern and with less of the orish elements. Would it be up for oscars? i highly doubt it. which is a sad state of affairs for Irish film going forward.

    And in the greatest irony its not an Irish film. Its a British produced film. A film that thinks its Irish. Like the way British people found Fr Ted funny, but they were laughing at us. While we knew the joke, we were laughing at ourselves.

  19. Until I realized the Civil War was being played out in the background, I thought the film was set in the 1950’s. The marvelous cast did their best to infuse their lackluster characters with a glimpse of humanism. Colin has grown on me as an actor, and Brendan is always steadfast.

    The plot was dismal, pointless and, I am going to say it, dull. I have read glowing reviews and wondered what film they had painfully sat through. I bailed out 40 minutes before it ended. A bleak, dreary film lacking purpose. “Three Billboards” had a soul, however dark. This movie hopes you will be gobsmacked by the stunning scenery and overlook the dim dialogue.

    Spot on review. Thank you!

  20. Thank you so much for affirming what I believed since seeing this insulting, derogatory and plain boring film. I was ashamed of the portrayal of Irish people and culture. Martin McDonagh knows as much about the Irish character and temperment as I do of Astro-Physics. His brittle, bitter diatribes have been lauded so long that one begins to wonder if we are dwelling in the same universe. I am Irish born and was deeply offended by the shallow, stereotypical characters portrayed in this film. As a theatre directorI am appalled at the clumsy, inarticulate rendering of Irish life, particularly during a devastating time in our history. The one element worth considering was the relationship between the two men and what was underlying Brendan’s decision. Of course that would demand a modicum of empathy or understanding of human existence. Mr. McDonagh possesses neither.

  21. Great review. This dreadful film has a cast of gombeens.. every one of them. I’m disappointed by its cynical portrayal of us.. is it too much to say its racist? Possibly. The sneer is definitely behind the camera.. And us ejects keep lapping it up?

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