THE tale begins with a land opening right onto the sea and a man walking past meadows. He is Pádraic. He becomes a shadow as we trail him. He reaches a house, the walls washed white. He pets a dog. He knocks. No one answers. He looks into the window and sees the man whose name he is calling. That is Colm. They are friends until the knocking on the door. Well, the knocking is not the reason why their friendship has ended. There is a deeper reason. Colm has stopped liking Pádraic.
It is a reason that borders on madness. It is also an original mode of breaking away from a relationship. Untried. That makes the reason deep.
Pádraic does not believe Colm refuses to talk to him anymore. He leaves his friend’s home and goes back to his place, where his sister, Siobhán, is surprised he is back too soon. Pádraic tells Siobhán what has recently occurred.
Pádraic returns to his friend’s home, finds the door open, and goes inside. A gramophone is playing a song, the voice of a tenor rising above the empty place. He moves around and, as he reaches another window, he sees the figure of a hulking man, walking away. Pádraic follows Colm and he knows where his friend is going—to the pub. In there, Pádraic finds out his friend would not even sit beside him. Colm steps out.
Where is Colm going? And where is this friendship bound to be? Herein is that conversation.
“You do like me? I don’t. You liked me yesterday.”
We are confronted by this dialogue where one friend confesses his dislike of his old friend. For the next few minutes, we think somewhere there is a prank, that Colm is teasing his friend. That there will be loud laughter to follow, an embrace and—once more—a friendship. Then we will feel bliss, satisfaction.
Or, we might put it this way: there is a dark secret uncovered that is so grave, it might justify the end of a friendship. Nothing of that sort happens. A man has decided he will follow a different path where his old friend does not figure in anymore. He realizes this friend is boring and has nothing to do with the loftiness of his plans—music and composing.
Who makes this kind of tale? As the film The Banshees of Inisherin will show us, only the Irish, in their isolation and grace, to the tune of their magical music, and aided by the lilt of the words in their language, can conjure this plot and bring us to experience the mysticism and dark humor of human relationships.
In the story and screenplay of Martin McDonagh, the ordinariness of the human universe is enough to engage us. In this small island, at the tailend of the civil war dividing a nation, a cluster of homes is inhabited by men and women whose versions of the quotidian are even more vibrant than the lores we link to Ireland. In The Banshees of Inisherin, a man can vow to cut his finger if only to stop a former friend from talking to him, where donkeys are brought into one’s home to assuage one’s loneliness, and homes are burned down not out of revenge or cruelty but to bring back the equilibrium in the habitable space.
The story always has primacy in any good cinema but The Banshees of Inisherin is a diligent experience of how a chronicle can urge the actions, the epiphanies bouncing on discoveries and rediscoveries, a relentless narrative happening in a wondrous landscape where at each turn, plots and subplots—characters leading and misleading—materialize, dissipate, and re-create narratives to the bells and strings that belong to sylvan landscape than to violent confrontations (the music of Carter Burwell composes a legion of unseen elementals).
With a cinematography (Ben Davis is the director of photography) that scans the horizon for signs of distress but disclosing only an awesomeness and silent grandeur, the two main characters are left to look at each other as if they are anticipating the world before them to crumble or glow like the birth of a star, and to understand, as Arthur Miller puts it, “the lines between the lines.” To these two protagonists/antagonists, Colm and Pádraic, their interchangeability is the molten core of this tiny planet of sad human beings. As Colm, Brendan Gleeson has the scary heft and yet he has his temper checked always. We fear him exploding but he is possessed of a resignation that is so terrifying, he is willing to cut his fingers to prove his point. Almost clueless and dumb to a point, Colin Farrell’s Pádraic is a study of man’s natural gift for insisting that the world can be reformed by selfless intentions. To the fans, Farrell’s face has no more of that handsome recklessness; what he has is a gaze—whether he is looking out to the vastness of the sea or pondering upon the fate of friendship—that puts meaning to speciousness.
There are two disturbing women characters in the film: Kerry Condon’s Siobhán and Sheila Flitton’s Mrs. McCormick. Siobhán leaves the island for a better prospect in the mainland. That she can leave home is terrifying to patriarchy. Mrs. McCormick’s eccentric diviner can read the future and that is horror for men who believe they control destinies.
All throughout the film, the sound of guns and cannons can be heard from a distance. Is this the end of war or the beginning of another? In Inisherin, men are abandoning their friends, their rage not needing any reason. On this island, we learn how wars begin for no reason at all.
Nominated for nine categories in the Oscars, including the Best Picture and Best Actor for Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin is directed by Martin McDonagh. The film is streaming over Disney+.