When “The Banshees of Inisherin” premiered at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this year, it received a 15-minute standing ovation. In the time since, it has emerged as a clear frontrunner for the upcoming Academy Awards, and has in fact already been nominated for eight Golden Globes— the most for any movie this year. All this acclaim is a little surprising, because the movie is very strange. (But in a good way.)
As the film opens, we see a rugged Irish landscape, as gorgeous as it is unforgiving, while the choir version of a folk song called “Polegnala e Todora” plays in the background. (Interestingly, the song is actually from Bulgaria rather than Ireland, because why not?) We meet the always watchable Colin Farrell as Pádraic Súilleabháin (which, fact fans, is the Gaelic spelling of the rather less interesting name “Patrick Sullivan”) and his best friend, the reliably gruff Brendan Gleeson as Colm Sonny Larry Doherty (yes, he is actually called all three of his first names quite often). When Colm does not show up at the town pub one afternoon, Pádraic is confused; after all, they’ve been meeting there at the same time for years. He later learns, to his dismay, that Colm has simply decided that he no longer wants to be Pádraic’s friend. And… that’s the movie, really.
Amazingly, writer-director Martin McDonagh takes this simple story and weaves it into a mesmeric, melancholic tale of depression, longing, mortality, and friendship. And just like his previous films “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri,” “In Bruges,” and (to a lesser extent) “Seven Psychopaths,” “The Banshees of Inisherin” is somehow very, very funny.
McDonagh started his career as a playwright with the excellent (and, frankly, quite terrifying) drama “The Pillowman” in 2003, and his theater background shows. His dialogue has a wry, snappy energy that seems to belong more to the stage than to the screen; but rather than being off-putting and flat, it works very well here. (And did I mention the movie is funny?)
But the best dialogue in the world wouldn’t work without good actors, and “The Banshees of Inisherin” has those in spades. Farrell, a reported shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar, is simply brilliant, as is his co-lead Gleeson. Both are extremely talented performers who are frequently the best thing in every movie they happen to be in, and they do some of the very best work of their careers here. Even the supporting cast is stellar: Barry Keoghan, once again playing the off-kilter weirdo which is his apparent specialty, is equal parts cringeworthy and sincere as Dominic; and Kerry Condon just about steals the entire movie as Pádraic’s level-headed (and often exasperated) sister Siobhan, who at times seems to be the only sensible person on the entire island.
The plot, too, is one of this movie’s strong points. Not because it’s particularly complex— it really isn’t— but because there is literally no way to know where the story will go next. There’s a donkey who likes hanging out indoors; there’s a naked man asleep in a chair; there’s a bloody pair of garden shears by the fire; there’s a creepy woman in black (a banshee, perhaps?) who may or may not be clairvoyant. Throughout the narrative, McDonagh keeps throwing curve balls, upping the stakes and keeping the audience on its toes. But regrettably, that is also one of “Banshee’s” flaws, and one that it shares with McDonagh’s previous film, “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.” In that film, as in this one, characters do increasingly foolish and violent things— self-harm, arson, assaulting policemen, etc.— without suffering any apparent consequences for their actions. Although undoubtedly good for shock value (and for post-movie conversations over dinner), scenes like this need to affect the characters in meaningful ways; otherwise they just lower the stakes, thus weakening the overall narrative.
Still, it’s hard not to like a movie that’s so well acted, well written, and well directed. I think that “The Banshees of Inisherin” will win quite a few Golden Globes in January next year, and some Oscars two months after that. (You don’t have to be a creepy woman in black to predict that.)
5 crowns: a must-see
4 crowns: excellent
3 crowns: good but not great
2 crowns: just about watchable
1 crown: avoid at all costs