By Noah Gittell
The scariest movie in theaters this October isn’t “Smile” or “Barbarian”. It’s a little Irish film called “The Banshees of Inisherin”. To be clear, it’s not a horror movie. It’s sort of a comedy, but it’s also a folk tale and a Greek tragedy; but since it has a witch in it I guess it actually is a horror movie. There are no jump scares or psycho killers in masks. Instead, the subject is the damage ordinary humans inflict on each other. The only masks in it are the ones we wear every day.
Like a missile fired into the darkest contours of the human heart, “The Banshees of Inisherin” plunges inexorably towards its final destination. It starts on the sunny surface where Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a simple, happy fellow, lives a quiet life on a small island off the coast of Ireland in the 1920s. He’s a rare character in cinema in that he is completely unremarkable. He has no ambitions. He’s happy to divide his time between his loved ones: his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon), his beloved donkey, and his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson), a fiddler who meets Pádraic for beers at the local pub every day. At least he did. As the film begins, Colm has decided to end his friendship with Pádraic, and what’s worse, he won’t tell him why. “It’s nothing you did,” says Colm. “I just don’t like you anymore.”
This isn’t supposed to happen to adults. Friendships peter out slowly, as lunches, calls, and text messages get further and further apart. Writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) has created a startling scenario that upends social norms and exposes our worst relationship fears. It’s funny at times. There are laughs to be had in Farrell’s bewilderment at the sudden end to his friendship; the movie-star-turned-character-actor summons genuine naivete that allows the viewer to both chuckle at Pádraic’s bemusement while still feeling his pain. It’s a performance measured in small strokes: It’s remarkable how much work Farrell’s eyebrows do, with his furrowed brow evoking a childish confusion that, when combined with his roguish good looks, makes him as easy to root for as a sweet kid in a potato sack race.
But isn’t there part of you that wants to watch that kid fall flat on his face? “The Banshees of Inisherin” indulges our desire for suffering. The comedy turns macabre when Colm, intent on imparting the seriousness of his request, threatens to cut off one of his fingers every time Pádraic speaks to him. “Would you not want him to have to do the one finger, to see if he was bluffing-like?” asks Dominic (Barry Keoghan), the local idiot who steps in as Pádraic’s new best friend, mostly as a way of ingratiating himself to Siobhan, for whom he harbors an unrequited schoolboy crush. Eventually, Pádraic’s curiosity does get the better of him, with brutal results.
It’s not a film for the squeamish, as the rivalry eventually turns hostile and then suddenly violent, but its themes are more discomfiting than terrifying. As an unnecessary hedge for those who might find this story too slight, McDonaugh makes frequent reference to the Irish Civil War happening just off the shores of Inishirin. As it plays out, the pain and misery inflicted by two people simply trying to meet their emotional needs is hefty enough. Right from the start, there seems little hope that these friends will reconcile; all that remains is how far their feud will go.
It’s a bitterly sad film, but credit must be given for how boldly it refuses to back off from its darker impulses, and how precisely it conveys the wounds we inflict on one another. Lesser filmmakers would just go for the laughs or increase the gore. McDonagh keeps digging until he finds real, vital truths, aided by his strong, steady cast. Gleeson wears a perpetual scowl but somehow finds infinite shades of gray in his blackened heart, while Condon and Keoghan each give distinct performances as lonely souls who, in a better world, would come together but, in this one, only add to the heartbreak.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” is an existential horror film about people who have it all —friendship, community, and purpose — and burn their lives to the ground in their search for something more. There’s little to lean on here. Even the local priest, who tries in vain to lift Colm from despair, seems to have little hope in reserve. It’s grim and glum and a little brave. In troubled times, it’s easy for an artist to sell redemption. McDonagh shows us the dismemberment of the human soul. We’re better for it.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” will be in theaters on October 21, just in time for Halloween.