In other words, McDonagh is a master world builder. Whether you want to live in those worlds for two hours of your only life is purely a matter of individual taste. For some, McDonagh’s soaring vernacular and tightrope balance of cruelty and humanism embody the finest values of the Irish literary tradition. Others (present company included) find the verbal pyrotechnics clever distractions from a facile, supremely ungenerous moral imagination. Put simply, some of us aren’t buying it.
“The Banshees of Inisherin,” McDonagh’s latest portrait of human frailty taken to its most perverse lengths, finds the filmmaker in a gentler allegorical space than his previous films; the opening scene features a literal rainbow behind his protagonist’s shoulder. But viewers shouldn’t mistake the story’s fairy-tale-like contours for reassurance. It’s still McDonagh’s world, shot through with rhetorical curlicues, unfettered absurdism, and lashings of sudden, lacerating violence.
All those values are on showy display in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which reunites “In Bruges” stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, this time not on a hit job in Belgium but on the fictional Irish island of Inisherin in 1923. Farrell plays Padraic Suilleabhain, a simple villager who lives with his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) and enjoys regular nights at the local pub with his best friend Colm (Gleeson). As “The Banshees of Inisherin” opens, Colm is behaving strangely toward Padraic; if it were the present day, we’d say he was ghosting his former wing man. In 1920s Ireland, with the civil war barely detectable in the distance, the rejection is far less passive-aggressive: Colm would sooner cut off a finger than indulge Padraic’s entreaties of friendship. Literally.
Can this bromance be saved? “The Banshees of Inisherin” escalates with hyperbole typical of McDonagh: As Padraic’s irresistible force repeatedly butts up against Colm’s immovable object, only hilarity or tragedy can ensue. Make that hilarity and tragedy, as is McDonagh’s wont, as a number of subplots unfurl to underline the filmmaker’s fundamental themes, including the travails of a slow-witted townsman named Dominic (Barry Keoghan) and the sadistic predations of his abusive father, who happens also to be the local policeman.
For the frequent blunt-force meanness and operatic emotion of the story, “The Banshees of Inisherin” looks beautiful: Cinematographer Ben Davis infuses the County Mayo locations with an otherworldliness appropriate to the story’s intimations of mysticism and romance. If Keoghan’s depiction of a developmentally delayed character veers uncomfortably close to caricature, Farrell, Gleeson and Condon are all sharply compelling as the three main characters, with Condon acquitting herself with particular aplomb as an intelligent woman forced to navigate man feelings writ irrationally, self-importantly large.
Presumably, one of McDonagh’s themes is the fatal cost of masculine reserve, as well as the futility of petty squabbles that can so easily metastasize into the fraternal battles that rage beyond Inisherin’s sleepy shores. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is also about artistic ego at its most monstrous and selfishly all-consuming: Colm’s reason for excising Padraic from his life is so that he can spend his final years focusing solely on playing the fiddle and composing (the piece he’s working on is called “The Banshees of Inisherin”). McDonagh sets up a central dynamic that’s seductive in its binary simplicity: What’s more important, to be loved or to be great? To be smart or to be kind? Nice or interesting?
The fact that the choice is a false one is but a quibble within the filmmaker’s larger project, which is to put his characters in a purgatory of his own making and prod them while they squirm. It’s possible to see why McDonagh’s fans love his quirks and clever structural feints (the war of wills in “Banshees” often plays out like variations on a theme), as well as his characters’ willingness not to be liked. But what they find at the end of the filmmaker’s rainbow is less likely to be a pot of philosophical gold than prosaic self-satisfaction. “I just like the double ‘sh’ sound,” Colm says, explaining the title of his masterwork. He could just as well be speaking for McDonagh himself.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language throughout, some violence and brief graphic nudity. 114 minutes.