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 / 5)