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58th Chicago International Film Festival: The Banshees of Inisherin

Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago
The poster of the 58th Chicago International Film Festival
Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago

Special Presentation of the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

For better or worse, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is an unrelenting emotional tussle of stubbornness among men. Your tolerance level for such behavior will undoubtedly mix feelings and inform your experience. Some will relish in its afflicted dark humor while others will be ready to throw their hands up and beg for the clashing characters to get over themselves. No matter if you are engaged in the tailspin or irked by the whole ordeal, you will find plenty to be impressed with in this pitch black comedy and surefire awards darling.

The setting is a fictional remote island off the coast of Ireland. Filmed in the Aran Islands near Galway and Achill Island in County Mayo by Guardians of the Galaxy cinematographer Ben Davis (in his third collaboration with McDonagh), the expansive and unspoiled countryside is laced with stone fences holding livestock, family properties, and, more invisibly, isolated sadness. The explosions of the Irish Civil War can be heard from the nearby mainland while the locals go about their symbiotic communal business. The social nexus on the island is the J.J. Devine Public House where pints, conversations, and bullshit are poured nightly.

A man is walking his donkey on a small road in "The Banshees of Inisherin"
Photo by Jonathan Hession. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

For many years, two Inisherin friends, Colm Doherty and Pádraic Súilleabháin, played respectfully by McDonagh’s reunited In Bruges duo of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, shared J.J. Devine’s tables and many of all three of those pours. That is until one day when Colm skips the usual get-together. Befuddled, Pádraic leaves the bar to seek out his absent friend. With outward silence and internalized thoughts, Colm doesn’t answer his door when Pádraic comes calling.

Pádraic is completely flummoxed by Colm’s silent treatment as it begins to last longer than a day. When he asks his sister Siobhan (Better Call Saul’s Kerry Condon) why this could be happening, she quickly and easily answers, “Maybe he doesn’t like you anymore.” With splinters of Occam’s razor, sometimes the simplest answer is the one. Go ahead and ring the chapel bells because, sure enough, that’s the movie. The 100 odd minutes that follow flesh out the learning curve of full realization the dim and dull Pádraic cannot comprehend of this simple answer. Once again, welcome to male stubbornness.

A man stands inside his cottage door in "The Banshees of Inisherin"
Photo by Jonathan Hession. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Colm has put his foot down, speaking his gravel-voiced wishes of “sit somewhere else” and “leave me alone,” and now the big question floating in these breezes off the Atlantic in The Banshees of Inisherin is why. Is there a bigger reason than Siobhan’s theory or does it boil down to that very simplicity? Is there a larger undercurrent to make this course of action so severe? Does a man even need a reason? When that aforementioned simplest explanation comes true and there isn’t, that’s where the movie falters a bit with stoking a grander impact and meaning.

In an odd way, this setup makes The Banshees of Inisherin essentially a break-up movie. To double-down, Colm declares harsh repercussions should Pádraic continue to re-engage their friendship, namely the severing of his own fingers by way of livestock shears. You can’t get much darker with warped dedication to prove a point than self-mutilation. With tragedy levels spiking to Grecian proportions, bluffs and dares turn into retributions and reprisals in short order. One more time, welcome to main stubbornness.

Two men talk pointedly at a table outside in "The Banshees of Inisherin"
Photo by Jonathan Hession. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

To that end, there’s an encouraging streak inside the blackness of The Banshees of Inisherin of evolving one’s conversation norms. Surround yourself with better people and more interesting conversation topics. Change it up. Appreciate the shared time. Use it better than the same old chit-chat, small talk, and rants as you grow older. Make it richer. Make it meaningful. That’s more of what Colm wants and what Pádraic cannot provide.

A stupendous pair of actors are pitted against each other in McDonagh’s film to unleash scripted vexations and drop an infinite amount of accented profanity in all directions. Colin Farrell, already greatly growing as an actor since entering his forties, offers one of the best performances of his career. The commitment level he reaches for his character’s physical and mental unravelings is sight to see. The embarrassment, longingness, rancor, and anguish seethe from his every pore.

A man holds a fiddle to his shoulder in "The Banshees of Inisherin"
Photo by Jonathan Hession. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Stacked with layers of grimness as thick as his own frame, Brendan Gleeson is a dynamic foil to all of Farrell’s bluster, complete with an elegant fiddle talent for his character far more refined than inebriated rambling. Gleeson wears Colm’s exhaustion, distaste, and, ultimately, his resolve across the creases of his face and the curtness of his silence. As an audience, we wait with bated breath for returned warmth, which may never come, that could heal this grudge.

Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri) does not make that restorative trail easy, straight, or optimistic with his scripted narrative. Simple apologies aren’t going to do it. An arbitrator like Condon’s Siobhan or an affable icebreaker like Barry Koeghan’s twitchy village idiot Dominic Kearney (a bit of a tiresome act we’ve seen too often from the young actor) aren’t enough either. You know you’re stubborn when even the island’s dumbest individual questions your behavior. Like frost in a crack, the damage is destined to worsen no matter the salve.

At some point, the only feeling the tones and bells of Carter Burwell’s score can express is the same endless loneliness encapsulated by this island. Bleakness like that can trigger jealousy, sabotage, and spite so potent that men will take battles to the grave to feign integrity. Those entanglements are the deeper root of this film. In line with that cardinal trait of stubbornness, a balance of niceness, in any of its shades, is hard to find in The Banshee of Inisherin, but there’s something uncommonly compelling about absorbing and weathering this march to calamity.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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