‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ Review: Giving Your Friend the Finger

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play feuding frenemies in Martin McDonagh’s latest film, set on an Irish coast in 1923.

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By A.O. Scott

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The island of Inisherin, a rustic windswept rock off the coast of Ireland, does not appear on any real-world maps, but its geography is unmistakable. Not only because the sweaters and the sheep, the pints of Guinness and the thatched roofs bespeak a carefully curated Irish authenticity, but also because what happens on this island locates it firmly in an imaginary region that might be called County McDonagh.

This is a place, governed by the playful and perverse sensibility of the dramatist and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, where the picturesque and the profane intermingle, where jaunty humor keeps company with gruesome violence. The boundaries of the realm extend from Spokane, Wash., to the Belgian city of Bruges by way of Missouri and various actual and notional Irish spots. “The Banshees of Inisherin,” McDonagh’s new film, embellishes the cartography without necessarily breaking new ground. It’s a good place to start if you’re new to his work, and cozily — which is also to say horrifically — familiar if you’re already a fan.

Other McDonagh hallmarks include a breakneck, swaybacked plot, by turns hilarious and grim, painted over with a nearly invisible varnish of sentimentality. It’s not necessary to believe what you see — it may, indeed, not be possible — but you can nonetheless find yourself beguiled by the wayward sincerity of the characters and touched by the sparks of humanity their struggles cast off. And impressed by the craft of the actors and the crew (which here includes the cinematographer Ben Davis, the composer Carter Burwell and the costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh). Perhaps above all, you are apt to be tickled, sometimes to gales of laughter, by the spray of verbal wit that characterizes the McDonagh dialect.

It’s 1923, though modernity has dawdled a bit en route to Inisherin, where rural life proceeds at its immemorial pace. On the mainland, the Irish Civil War drags on; distant gunfire can sometimes be heard across the water. The islanders pay it very little mind, and don’t see any point to taking a side. The local constable (Gary Lydon), a dull, violent brute and the closest thing to a pure villain this movie possesses, is pleased to have been recruited to assist in an execution. He doesn’t know or care whether the National Army or the I.R.A. is responsible for the killing. He’s content to gawk and get paid.

“Banshees,” in any case, is concerned with an intensely local conflict, between Padraic (Colin Farrell), a sociable cow herder, and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), a melancholy fiddler. They have been drinking together nearly every afternoon at the local shebeen for as long as anyone can remember, until Colm abruptly and unilaterally declares an end to their friendship. “I just don’t like you no more,” he tells Padraic, who responds with wounded incredulity.

Colm is quite serious. Every time Padraic dares to talk to him, he vows, he will cut off one of his own fingers. This shocking, irrational threat — a violinist promising to sever himself from his art — gives the story a queasy momentum. Even after the digits start to fly — Colm flings them at the door of Padraic’s cottage — it’s hard for Padraic or the audience to accept what’s happening, let alone understand it.

What is Colm’s problem? He may be a bit more worldly than his neighbors. The masks and other objects that decorate his house suggest an acquaintance with — or maybe just a curiosity about — the world beyond the island. Gleeson plays him as a storm cloud in a billowing overcoat, an artist whose temperament is at once too delicate and too volatile for his surroundings. The parish priest worries that he’s prone to the sin of despair, which sounds simplistic but not entirely inaccurate.

You can understand how Colm might be annoyed with Padraic — part of Farrell’s charm is that he’s always at least a little bit annoying — and that Colm is desperate for a change in his routine. He’s composing a new tune, and time spent with a trifling drinking buddy threatens to distract him from this potential masterpiece. Still, self-mutilation seems a bit extreme.

Not necessarily in McDonagh’s world. (See also: “A Behanding in Spokane.”) Colm and Padraic are flanked by sundry other Inisherinites, human and otherwise. Colm lives with a patient Border collie. Padraic, surrounded by livestock of various kinds, is especially attached to a miniature donkey named Jennie. He also lives with his put-upon, sensible sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), who quietly dreams of leaving Inisherin, and sometimes passes the time with Dominic (Barry Keoghan), the intellectually challenged son of that dastardly constable.

Some of these creatures are marked out for tragedy — a witchy old widow prophesies general doom whenever she passes someone on the road or stops in for tea — and McDonagh doles out misery and humor with an expert hand.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” might feel a little thin if you hold it to conventional standards of comedy or drama. It’s better thought of as a piece of village gossip, given a bit of literary polish and a handsome pastoral finish. Inisherin may not be a real place, but its eccentric characters, rugged vistas and vivid local legends make it an attractive tourist destination all the same.

The Banshees of Inisherin
Rated R. Salty language and bloody deeds. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. In theaters.

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