On the remote island of Inisherin during the Irish Civil War, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) is stricken when his friend, musician Colm (Brendan Gleeson), decides that he wants nothing to do with him anymore. At first, the islanders and Pádraic's sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon) believe the two are simply rowing with each other, but Colm makes a chilling ultimatum - for every time Pádraic bothers him, he will cut off one finger of his hand...
What is it about the Irish identity that makes it so easy to blend death and comedy together? Is it because we as people understand the ultimate futility of life, and choose to laugh in its face? Or is it merely a product of our blood-soaked history? Whatever the reason, Martin McDonagh brings to the boil a brew of bog-black humour, and looking in, we discover only ourselves looking back out.
Compared to 'In Bruges' or his brother's work, 'The Guard', Martin McDonagh arranges 'The Banshees of Inisherin' in a much more sparse and philosophical fashion. The story is not about two friends quarrelling with each other, but an examination of the choice between legacy and infamy. Do we want to be remembered by everyone forever, or simply by those who knew and loved us? What does it take in order to do that? This is where Brendan Gleeson's deep well of emotion comes into play, where we see the despair of his life in his eyes, but it is communicated with a glance or a gesture. Gleeson should expect awards in the future for his performance here. Colin Farrell, likewise, is equally on form and plays off Gleeson's staunchness like a true double-act. Farrell's character is chirpy, happy, and completely taken unaware as to why his supposed friend is done with him. He takes it all in and carries the rejection like a lover's heartbreak, but then finds himself at odds with his former friend in one of the most devastating moments in cinema this year.
Between the two of them, however, is the island itself and the cast of supporting characters. Chief among them is Kerry Condon, who should have had equal billing with Farrell and Gleeson for the powerhouse of a performance she puts in. Condon's character is the voice of reason, correctly assessing that the whole thing is bizarre, and the best thing to do is to simply get away from the island as quickly as possible. Why? Because on Inisherin as it is in Ireland, when we have no one to fight, we'll end up fighting ourselves. The setting of the Civil War makes this point even clearer. Gary Lydon, who plays the local scumbag Garda with sublime relish, is wistful when he talks about how it was easier fighting the British colonisers than ourselves, as the nature of the Civil War makes it impossible to distinguish who is friend and who is foe.
Given how previous examinations of Irish rural life at this time period caused riots, 'The Banshees of Inisherin' is unlikely to curry the same reaction. In saying that, you can't help but feel a certain gnawing sense of embarrassing stereotyping. Yet, as the story progresses, you realise it's being played in order to chip away at it. The music, from Carter Burwell, is as dark and atmospheric as Ben Davis' cinematography, particularly the nighttime scenes involving the crone Mrs. McCormick, played by Sheila Flitton like a prophesying witch from Shakespeare.
If you're going in expecting 'The Banshees of Inisherin' to be a light air of comedy, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Likewise, if you're going expecting a quotable tragi-comedy with surplus cursing ala 'In Bruges', you're again going to be disappointed. It's much more philosophical and sparse, but it does have its moments of humour. In the end, 'The Banshees of Inisherin' digs through the black soil of Irish history and finds gold, along with blood feuds and treachery.