eAnglo-Irish playwright and director Martin McDonough specializes in bittersweet semi-comedies about human beings’ tendency to be angry, defensive detractors — but gloriously messed-up people nonetheless. Maybe the people who love his work – which includes movies like In Bruges, The Seven Psychopaths and, perhaps worst of all, this lingering, embarrassed wink at America’s heartland, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri—they force themselves to be surprised by it, but surely they must have caught it by now. You always know that eventually one or more of his weird, quirky characters will reveal a very dark heart.
This also applies to McDonagh’s Banshees of Inisherin, participated in the competition at the 79th Venice Film Festival. Still, this picture feels fresher and less contrived than most of the writer-director’s recent work, and the key to its pleasures and heartache can be summed up like this: Colin Farrell and a miniature donkey.
Banshee is set in the waning days of the Irish Civil War, on a bleak, rocky island off the coast of Ireland, a place where there isn’t much to do but frown at your neighbors and drink in the pub. Farrell’s Pádraic Súilleabháin has it in his mind to do the latter, so he wanders across the grassy, boulder-strewn landscape to his friend Colm Doherty’s (Brendan Gleeson) cottage. But when he knocks on the door and knocks on the window, Colm refuses to answer, though Padraic can clearly see his broad, stubborn back inside. Confused, Padraic goes to the pub alone, only to return to Colm’s house a few minutes later, trying to find out what’s going on with his friend.
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
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It takes a few tries, but Colm eventually gives him a reason: a violinist, songwriter, and self-described art lover, Colm concludes that he can’t listen to any more of Padraic’s boring talk. “I don’t like you anymore,” he says simply, and Padraic is knocked down. He is, as one character describes him, “one of the good men alive.” He loves the animals he raises, especially his miniature donkey Jenny, a sweet girl with alert ears and calm, inviting eyes; he believes that Jenny should be allowed into the house, much to the dismay of his sister, Siobhan (the lovely Carrie Condon). They live there together, their parents having long since passed away. Siobhan, who prefers reading to drinking and socializing, is the town oddity, although leaving seems impossible and she knows how much her brother needs her.
Padraic doesn’t want to give up on his friend and Colm grows increasingly angry. It doesn’t matter to him that Padraic is nice and easy-going. “Nobody in the 17th century was remembered for being good,” he says, citing Mozart and Beethoven as examples. Padraic, wounded, presses on, still not understanding, until Colm threatens revenge of the strangest kind if Padraic insists on pestering him.
Pádraic tries to adjust to the new state of affairs, difficult in a place so closed that it is impossible to avoid your neighbors and former friends. The townspeople do their best to help him and perhaps patch things up between the two men: The local goon Dominic (Barry Keoghan, in an expressive, affecting performance), tries to slip into the space Colm left behind, but Pádraic won’t. The parish priest (David Pearce) even tries to intervene behind the screen of the confessional, but Colm remains unmoved, his face a map of exasperated cards, his eyes almost hidden from the world, as if his sun was the thing that burned him. He was trying to banish a despair he could not articulate; spilling his longtime friend seems like the only way to burn him.
Farrell and Keoghan
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Meanwhile, a more literal war rages nearby, and one character or another will occasionally notice its futility – metaphor alert! However, watching Gleason and Farrell together – ann In Bruges a gathering of sorts – is to understand the futility of this conflict in purely human terms. Gleeson is great as always, and although his Colm is as brutal as a stump, his suffering pours off him like a mysterious vapor. There is no cure for it except the dark one he invents himself.
But this is Farrell’s film: he gives what is surely one of the best performances of the year. After listening, stunned, to Colm’s speech in the pub about the futility of politeness, a fire of seriousness burns in his haggard brown eyes as he makes an argument in her defense. (He pronounces Beethoven Borovan.) When he’s feeling down, he goes for a walk with Jenny by his side: the tufts of fur on her neck stand up, echoing the hair on his own head—a visual signal that they’re soul mates, linked by a sweet nature and an appreciation for grass walks and good, clean air.
Animal lovers should know that Jenny met a sad end in the banshee, although her loss is not treated casually.The first two-thirds of the film, as Padraic labors over Colm’s patience, is a whirlwind of the invigorating, funny dialogue that McDonagh is so good at, and his color palette is warm and earthy green: the sun streams through the pub windows as Colm walks away , surrounded by some student musicians and having a good enough time considering he’s such a sad guy. Then the film, both in appearance and tone, turns dark as a storm – if you know McDonough’s work at all, you’ve probably seen this twist of the knife. But Farrell brings additional layers of depth and sorrow to McDonough’s classic model. He’s the character you want to protect, and the one who makes your heart sink when you see him harden, out of necessity, against the world. He gives Banshee of Inisherin his soul and his beauty. To look at his face is to understand the semi-welcoming, semi-unforgiving place known as home.
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