The Banshees of Inisherin is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, an Irish playwright and director who did In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which some critics felt lacked an understanding of American cultural nuances. Following those criticisms, McDonagh has made the most Irish movie of the year.
The Banshees of Inisherin is set on an isolated, desolate fictional Island off of the coast of Ireland during the 1923 Irish Civil War. At the start of the film, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) abruptly concludes that he no longer likes his long-time friend, Pádraic (Colin Farrell), and what follows is an often shocking, sometimes darkly funny détente between the two men.
On the surface, the film is acceptably engaging. The cinematography by Ben Davis features beautiful shots of the Irish coast, and the costume design by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh is understated but perfectly attuned to the characters. As they were in In Bruges, Gleeson and Farrell play off of each other well with an easy chemistry. With the exception of Calvary, Gleeson’s imposing physicality has never been more intimidating and commanding.
However, once the plot takes a dark, surprising turn toward self-mutilation, the film becomes more and more inscrutable. McDonagh’s expert understanding of Ireland and the Irish Civil War is likely the key to unlocking The Banshees of Inisherin, a film that gets more opaque as it gets more extreme. I don’t know enough about Irish history to be able to decode whatever metaphorical significance McDonagh is trying to allude to, and I think general American audiences aren’t going to get it either.
Ultimately, the images portend some criticisms of the relationship between the Irish people and the Catholic Church (there’s a priest character who is embarrassingly unhelpful and the two friends part at a statue of Mary), and the plot involves the kind of disproportional over-reactions that lead to armed conflict, but these are vague subjects of exploration, not cohesive theses.
Whereas Armageddon Time felt clear, like it knew you were up to the challenge of figuring it out and putting its pieces together, The Banshees of Inisherin seems to actively evade understanding. As we spend more and more time with these characters, they get more and more inscrutable. Perhaps there’s a Rosetta Stone to this film, but I couldn’t find it.