' ' Cinema Romantico: The Banshees of Inisherin

Friday, December 09, 2022

The Banshees of Inisherin

It is fashionable to think of modern society’s craving for silence as new-fangled, what with all the screens and social media and the 24-hour news cycle and stories of locating the last place on Earth without human noise. Set in 1923, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” however, is here to remind us that as of at least 100 years ago, silence was already an object of great yearning, even on a small, quaint fictional Irish island like Inisherin. Cozy and quaint, after all, can become an unlikely synonym for oppressive, as it is with Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), who unemotionally cuts off his longtime friendship with Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) as writer/director Martin McDonagh’s movie opens, saying “I just don’t like you no more.” It’s a taciturn line reading befitting Gleeson’s performance, carrying himself in his manner and his posture like a man bearing a great weight but not being all demonstrative about it. (It’s a back a bit, he confesses to a therapist by way of a priest about his depression.) That weight comes in the form of Pádraic, not that Colm’s drinking buddy has the self-awareness to know it. Eventually the reasoning for this one-sided falling out is clarified in a bit more detail, but just in the dueling airs of these two men and you can imagine in an instant a lifetime of Pádraic prattling on – about the weather, about his precious donkey Jenny – and Colm retreating deeper and deeper within himself until he can no longer hear himself think.

It’s true that despite so much lush scenery “The Banshees of Inisherin” could be translated to the stage from the screen with but a few minor tweaks and no one would be the wiser. (That includes the donkey. I saw “The Ferryman”; there was a goose onstage.) This is to say McDonagh is not telling his story strictly in visual terms. But it is also true that the movie screen is predominantly about the human face and so “The Banshees of Inisherin” becomes predominantly about the weathered, wearied visage of Gleeson and Farrell’s big, bushy eyebrows, the best eyebrows in a movie this year, like the movie’s weathervanes, cluing you into whether Pádraic is perplexed, heated, sad, or maybe all three at once. Indeed, the real drama in “The Banshees of Inisherin” proves less about the why than the what, and the what is Pádraic’s struggle to simply process what he has been told. In that way, McDonagh’s movie calls to mind one Larry David might have made if Larry David were Irish Catholic rather than Jewish. Because no matter how many times Colm tells Pádraic to feck off, because even when Colm threatens to start chopping off his own fingers for every word his drinking buddy utters, Pádraic, frequently in the most bleakly hysterical manner you can imagine, will not, nay, cannot leave well enough alone, looking more and more like his beloved pet donkey Jenny wanting to come inside the house even as Farrell and McDonagh deftly allow the character’s cited niceness to shade into something that begins to feel almost overbearing, flipping the whole idea of niceness on its head.

Pádraic’s winnowing niceness is put into further perspective through the village idiot Dominic (Barry Keoghan) taking Colm’s place, in a manner of speaking, as his new drinking buddy. Granted, McDonagh creates the character of Dominic to put him through the wringer by way of an abusive father in order to ostensibly subvert our expectations and then extract poignancy from his plight, mechanized humanity skewing too close to McDonagh’s previous “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing,” Missouri. Yet, even if the writing tilts toward caricature, Keoghan evades it by creating, when it’s all said and done, a character who feels genuinely nice, warts and all, without having to broadcast it. Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), meanwhile, becomes stuck between the rock of Colm and the hard place of her brother. If McDonagh does not write much of an inner life for Siobhán, evoked in just how little care he takes to bake her explicit reasons for wanting to leave the island into the script, like Keoghan, Condon takes up the slack in her turn. In her character’s attempting to broker peace between warring pals, Condon lets a knowingness pass over her face when Colm suggests her character must relate to his desire for a little peace of his own. 

“The Banshees of Inisherin” takes its title from a song Colm composes on his fiddle, evocative of his expressed desire to put the little time he has left on Earth to some sort of purpose rather than wiling it away in unimaginative company. In truth, McDonagh does not express much interest in Colm’s burgeoning songwriting just as he does not express much interest in Colm’s raised query about whether creating something of value in your life is worthier than simply living a contented life, all of it winding up beside the point in the face of escalating violence. The violence provides an avenue for the movie to track toward a resolution though that resolution pointedly finds nothing resolved. The Irish Civil War on the mainland alludes to such an open ending throughout, and McDonagh cannot help but render those allusions explicit with some concluding dialogue, all the more unfortunate because the truth is not in the words but in silence where, it turns out, Colm finds little peace after all. 

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