Martin McDonagh, a playwright and the filmmaker behind such place-based dramedies as In Bruges (2008) and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017), is at home in the omnidirectional grievances of small communities and limited locations. The site of his new existential buddy-comedy-gone-sour, The Banshees of Inisherin, is no different. On the island of Inisherin there’s no avoiding your neighbor, lest maybe you duck behind a stone wall when you see him coming up the road. It’s a fictional name for a real geography, where off the coast of Ireland an interminable gray sky hangs over verdant pastures and dramatic cliff sides. The year is 1923, and volleys of cannon blasts and gunfire from the Irish civil war can be heard booming over on the mainland. On Inisherin, though, things are as they ever were.
Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), a dopily agreeable man of simple pleasures, finishes his daily labor tending to his meager flock of a horse, a cow, and a very consequential miniature donkey named Jenny. As the clock strikes two, it’s off to the island’s sole pub with drinking pal Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson). Only Colm doesn’t want to go drinking with Pádraic anymore. Colm’s a prickly bear of a sort with a soft center but an unflappable countenance, and he’s had a change of heart. No more dull chatter. He’s going to focus his time and energy on his fiddle music from now on. And, thus, starts the feuding between them.
There’s much bickering, many drunken rows, and even a few appendages lost in the outcome. On an island of so few inhabitants, no one can help sticking their nose in and adding to the squabble. The inescapability of busybodies and gossip conveys the horrors of a close-quartered community — an idyllic isle that for many is more like a prison. Colm and Pádraic stand at opposing poles of the human disposition: the life of the mind versus the comforts of sociability. They’re counterpoised with extremes on either end. Dominic (Barry Keoghan) is the dimmest of the island’s cohort. With little by way of an internal life, he relies on human connection for gratification but is often dealt a blow in return, whether it’s a literal wallop from his bully of a police officer father or an emotional one from romantic feelings unreciprocated. Siobhán (Kerry Condon), Pádraic’s sister, on the other hand, is the only legitimately learned one on Inisherin and one of the few women populating McDonagh’s lonely island. However, she isn’t afflicted with the same self-importance as Colm. She doesn’t go around pronouncing her virtue. Siobhán represents a saner and more accommodating alternative to Colm’s egoic grandstanding.
McDonagh reaches for metaphorical, even mythic, analogues through the film’s central quarrel. When Colm threatens to cut off the fingers of his fiddle-hand if Pádraic bothers him once more, his logic is about as sound as cutting off your nose to spite your face, but now the metaphor has gone literal. Their disagreement is never fueled by anything approaching hatred. Gestures of barely stifled love and kinship are shared throughout. Rather, McDonagh is grasping at the eternal recurrence of strife, of brother against brother — that things will always come to this, no matter what, again and again. McDonagh seeks some congruence with the belligerent parties on the mainland, but the symmetry is best left oblique, and he is right to keep it in the distance.
Instead, he burrows deeper down into the individual men and locates one of the more poignant and haunting portrayals of depression in modern cinema. The war is with the self. Others are merely the casualties. Even poor innocent animals are sometimes drawn in, and, on Inisherin, that’s a line not to be crossed.