Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Some of the superficial jangle of The Banshees of Inisheran might suggest a lightweight comedy about the funny folk of an Irish island: fiddles are played and tin whistles are tootled, pints of Guinness are drained as standing orders at the local pub, and the island dialect and greener-than-green turf of the place threaten the possibility of Waking Ned Devine cuteness. But then periodically a puff of smoke is seen from the mainland, where a civil war is going on (it’s the 1920s), and we are reminded that all is not well in the world. The order of Inisheran’s island ecosystem is about to darken considerably.
Of course, as you would expect from a Martin McDonagh picture, The Banshees of Inisheran is often very funny. But the issues that emerge from a few days’ time on the island are profound indeed, nothing less than grave considerations of last chances, friendship, and one’s cosmic purpose. Padraic (Colin Farrell), a nice but profoundly dull man, is shocked when his usual afternoon pint with Colm (Brendan Gleeson) is rebuffed one day. In fact, Colm no longer wants to be friends with Padraic, although there has been no obvious upset in their relationship. Colm has been seized with a sense of mortality, made aware of the time left, and realizes he would rather create music that might outlive him than piss away his precious energy with pointless conversations with Padraic.
There is an asterisk attached to this unilateral break, and it has to do with self-mutilation, and it is the thing that sends the film outside the realm of what we might expect with such a set-up, and outside the realm of “realism,” and finally outside the realm of that superficial jangle. This element makes it a McDonagh film just as much as the crafted dialogue and the cutting violence, and it is why Banshees lands with such eerie force. Something deep stirs in Colm’s crisis, something having to do with eternity, and it leads him to a life-and-death (or at least bloodily irrevocable) response to Padraic’s friendship. And yet Padraic has something deep stir in him, too, and McDonagh honors his people by allowing them these stirrings.
He did that in In Bruges, of course, and also in the superb Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a movie that prompted lots of criticism from people who seemed to forget how movies and stories work. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson give mighty performances here—you can see the relish that actors have when the material challenges and elevates them; it’s as though they’re so sunk into this world they never want to leave it. Farrell’s shocked face no longer looks like Colin Farrell, somehow, his boyishness almost—but not quite—weathered out. Gleeson sits and stands like some heavy Irish ghost, certain in his path, carrying his regrets in the pockets of his long coat. It says something that with these two in top form, the film also contains two fantastic performances by Kerry Condon, as Padraic’s simmering sister, and Barry Keoghan, as a local boy with problems, which are not of the comic-relief variety they might initially seem.
The Banshees of Inisheran is getting an awards push, which is what happens at this time of year, and that’s okay, I guess, although that sort of attention tends to make a movie like this look normal and easily digestible and respectable. But it is much too strange for any of that nonsense, really, even if its makers participate. Trust what’s on screen instead, and hear the banshees across the water.
October 28, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.