It seems like every year “Film Twitter” sees a movie that they suspect could win the Academy Award that year despite being unworthy and proceed to lash out at it out of all proportion in an attempt to prevent that. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they have it coming (everything that was said about Green Book is true) but all too often it means a lot of silly hyperbole gets thrown at perfectly decent movies like La La Land, Belfast, or The Trial of the Chicago Seven. But the movie that I think received some of the most savagely unfair criticism that will seem bizarre in retrospect might be Martin McDonagh’s last film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I don’t want to re-litigate the whole thing here but the extent to which that movie seemed to get distorted in “the discourse” bordered on the ridiculous and what was a really sly tragicomedy just turned into an argument about whether it’s broken idiot side character was sufficiently punished at the end as if this were subject to some sort of Production Code restriction where everyone has to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy” with the bad guys are killed off or put in prison before the credits roll. One of the strangest turns this discourse took was to throw around the notion that as a foreigner McDonagh somehow “botched” his take on the United States, as if this absurdist dark comedy was supposed to be a super literal documentary of what life in the Show-Me state was like. But perhaps he took this criticism to heart as his new movie, The Banshees of Inisherin, is (as the title might suggest) one of the more aggressively Irish films to come along in a while.
The Inisherin of the film’s title is a fictional island somewhere off the coast of Ireland which seems to be a very modest agricultural community. It’s 1923 and the Irish Civil War is going on nearby, but does not seem to have spread to Inisherin itself, so most of the population is pretty disconnected from it. Our main point of view character is Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), a not very bright but mostly well-meaning farmer who lives with his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), a bookish lady who seems to mostly hang around to help her brother out. It would seem that his main means of passing time for a while has been to hang around with his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), a solitary man who plays the violin and seems to be in something of a depressive phase. One day Pádraic tries to sit down with Colm at a pub to have a drink when Colm rather abruptly tells him he no longer wants to hang out with him or be his friend. He says he’s come to realize he was wasting his life away listening to Pádraic’s inane stories and the he just simply does not like him anymore. Distraught, Pádraic keeps trying to interact with Colm until Colm finally snaps and issues an ultimatum: if Pádraic tries to talk to him one more time he’ll use a pair of sheers and cut off one of his own fingers and will keep mutilating himself this way until he’s left with no fingers left to play his violin with.
The whole situation at the center of the film is kind of an interesting bit of a moral quandary as you contemplate how much you sympathize with what Colm is doing here. On one hand, Colm has a right to hang out with whoever he wants to and Pádraic is not somehow entitled to continued friendship with Colm or with anyone else. On the other hand, Colm is being awfully cold about all of this and while a friendship isn’t exactly a marriage there is a point where if you willingly build an identity around hanging out with someone it sure seems hurtful to just leave them hanging like this, especially when you live on some desolate island in a time before mass communication where there aren’t many other people to hang out with and not much else to do. That Pádraic is also “dull,” possibly to the point of having some sort of undiagnosed mental disability, and generally doesn’t seem to have much going on in his life also makes you increasingly feel like he has some increased duty to be his brother’s keeper here. As a priest tells Colm in the movie at one point, what he’s doing is “not a sin, but it’s not very nice either.”
At the end of the day, what Colm is doing is plainly not reasonable. He may well have logical reasons to not indulge Pádraic at all times but there’s a lot of middle ground between listening to this guy talk about literal horse ship for two solid hours and cutting him off completely under threat of self-mutilation. A reasonable person would have simply set off some boundaries with which he would remain somewhat amiable with Pádraic without hanging out for hours with him for hours on end, or at least more slowly ween Pádraic off of this friendship. And of course the self-mutilation threats are just deranged. This is, at the end of the day a movie about unreasonable people, and I think this is where the Irish Civil War that’s happening on the film’s periphery comes into it, which I think this whole thing is meant to be something of a metaphor for. I’m not an expert about that conflict and I don’t think the specifics necessarily matter, you could probably replace it for any other intractable conflict of that sort where former comrades have a falling out over something that doesn’t seem terribly important to outsiders and things start to get bloody and painful quickly.
Amidst all of this, Martin McDonagh’s dark wit is still very much on display here. The film is perhaps a bit closer to his stage roots than some of the other films he’s made, in part because it’s ultimately a story about interactions between a small handful of characters and it’s in the kind of contained universe of Inisherin, but that isn’t to say that the movie feels “stagebound” and it was definitely written for the screen. Perhaps more importantly it he’s displaying a playwrights skill for turning the interpersonal conflict of a few people into something representative of much larger and more universal themes. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this is a bit of a reunion for McDonagh and stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson after the three made In Bruges together and clearly all of them have a strong rapport with each other. That said the movie is a bit less commercial than In Burges, and for that matter it’s also less experimental than Seven Psychopaths and also feels a bit smaller scale and less topical than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri so I’m not sure I’d say this is a real leap forward for McDonagh, but it will likely be less divisive than some of his previous work and stands on its own pretty well.
**** out of Five