Review: The Banshees of Inisherin

As with Parasite, the overwhelming critical success of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s third feature film is remarkable for its unlikelihood of even being noticed by a general international viewership. In Parasite‘s case, this unlikelihood was a function of its provenance. It was a Korean film about very Korean matters, and yet went on to win both the Palme d’Or and the Best Picture Oscar. The Banshees of Inisherin is much less arcane in that regard, since it has two recognizable Irish stars in the leads and McDonagh’s last film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, earned Academy Awards as well. But the whole narrative premise of the new film—a spat, or, more formally, a Spat, between two former friends that’s both rueful and gruesome—makes it an outlier, at least on paper, especially since the movie is almost all talk and no action. And while I admit to falling for its comic charms, I found two aspects of the presentation difficult to overcome. One, the story takes place in 1923, and while the production design does a fair job of making it look like what you would imagine an underpopulated island off the coast of Ireland would look like in 1923, the dialogue and the fundamental situation itself feels of the moment. The absurdist turn of the conversations smack of an older Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, but the diction has a post-millennial ring that kept sticking in my ear. Secondly, the Spat is between two men, Padraic (Colin Ferrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), whose apparent age difference goes unremarked for the whole film. When these same two actors starred in McDonagh’s first film, In Bruges, playing gangsters laying low in Belgium, the age difference was part of the central joke. Here, it just hangs over the proceedings like a strange odor. How did these two become friends in the first place?

That question is basic because of the nature of the Spat: Colm just suddenly decides he wants nothing to do with Padraic any more. Though the two have spent every afternoon since who knows when drinking and chatting at the pub, Colm now declares that he finds Padraic boring and doesn’t want to waste what time he has left in this world on him. Padraic reacts by going through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, starting with denial (“Of course you still like me”), but in any case the entire movie is taken up by his efforts to win back Colm’s favor and Colm’s increasing intransigence, which eventually leads to violence, albeit of a decidedly passive-aggressive type. Because the island is small, the whole population somehow gets involved, and McDonagh derives the lion’s share of humor from these observers’ own reactions to the Spat, particularly Padraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon), who, as the most prominent female voice in the film, finds the Spat not only stupid, but not worth her or anyone else’s time. “He’s always been dull,” she says to Colm, after she demands to know why he cut off her brother. 

The wider world enters the movie in the form of distant thunder from the Irish Civil War taking place over there, but any attempts to analogize the Spat with that conflict is a chump’s game, which leaves you with the Spat and a lot of cleverly wrought, but anachronistic, dialogue. In truth, if it weren’t for Ferrell’s unusual performance, I might have given up on Banshees halfway through, and I suppose you could cite the uniqueness of his character as yet another unlikelihood that makes the movie special. There’s nothing that says you can’t find a perplexing movie funny as well. 

Opens Jan. 27 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashin (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Banshees of Inisherin home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 20th Century Studios

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