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The Banshees of Inisherin is great — and even better if you know the history behind it

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson re-team for Martin McDonagh’s riotous fable that’s about more than a friend breakup.

Two Irish men are at a bar, looking a little distressed.
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in The Banshees of Inisherin.
Searchlight Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It doesn’t take a doctorate in Irish history — thank goodness, since I do not have one — to know that The Banshees of Inisherin is not merely a delightfully madcap tale of Irish zaniness. It is that, since writer and director Martin McDonagh (of In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) is incapable of turning out a boring story. But there’s more to it than what’s on the surface.

The Banshees of Inisherin plays like a very funny fable or a folk tale, the story of two lifelong friends, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson). The two men live on a remote island off the Irish coast, which is sparsely populated by a collection of eccentrics who’ve known each other forever and are unlikely to ever leave. The only occupant with aspirations to get off the island is Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), who’s tired to death of everyone, especially the men, who are, as she says, “all feckin’ boring.”

Well, maybe not all boring. One day at the pub, their usual afternoon haunt, Pádraic discovers that Colm is no longer his friend. The reason for the break is elusive to Pádraic, and even a bit elusive to Colm, who just can’t deal with his friend anymore. But when Pádraic can’t accept Colm’s decision, Colm sets out to make his intentions clear in the most unhinged way possible.

One man sits inside a room; the other peers in from the window.
Gleeson and Farrell in The Banshees of Inisherin.
Searchlight Pictures

McDonagh (Irish, but raised in London) is a playwright at heart and by trade, and he thrives in this sort of setup: a tightly controlled world of weirdos, a hothouse for quarrels and inside jokes and petty beefs and grudges held so long that people barely remember where they started. It makes for immensely entertaining storytelling, and he’s at his best in this distinctly Irish setting. Reuniting Gleeson and Farrell, whose odd-couple pairing rendered the gothic crime comedy of In Bruges so unforgettable, was the right choice. They’re fantastic in the roles, Gleeson as a world-weary grump and Farrell as a naif who seems to be missing a few screws.

But if you don’t detect what’s happening in the background of The Banshees of Inisherin, then it just plays as a weird tale told late at night over a few pints. The film really expands when you look into the background.

Because just across the way, across the water from Inisherin, there are explosions visible on the coast. The characters remark upon them occasionally, musing on the fighting that’s happening over there, a conflict they hope and believe will be over soon. No matter — it doesn’t touch them here on the island, where it’s Colm and Pádraic’s break that occupies everyone’s attention.

That fighting, presumably, is actually part of the Irish civil war. The film is set in 1923, at a time when that conflict had been raging for nearly a year. It’s part of the long history of strife and violence in Ireland, mostly having to do with vastly differing views on British rule of the island. The civil war commenced after the Irish War of Independence, which led to the establishment of Ireland as a free state that nonetheless would remain part of the British Commonwealth (more like Canada than Scotland, in other words). Some who had fought for independence with the Irish Republican Army supported the treaty that created the Free State; others fiercely opposed it, believing that Ireland ought to be wholly free from British involvement.

The result was a bloody war in which men who had fought on the same side now were fighting one another, lasting from June 1922 to May 1923. Watch The Banshees of Inisherin with this in mind, and you can start to see what McDonagh is doing. The break between Colm and Pádraic works on its own terms, but it’s also a startlingly violent fight between men who are basically brothers, a fight that has a logic to it and yet is heartbreaking precisely because of the depth of history between them. It’s the conflict in microcosm.

Two men face the water, away from the camera. One looks at the other.
Gleeson and Farrell look across the water in The Banshees of Inisherin.
Searchlight Pictures

The “banshees” of the title (and of the song Colm is composing throughout) are significant, as well. They hail from Irish folklore: female spirits who shriek and wail and mourn, signaling that a family member will soon die. In The Banshees of Inisherin, there’s no literal banshee, but it’s clear that’s the role that Mrs. McCormick, the pipe-smoking old woman that Pádraic avoids like the plague, plays in the village. Her dark forebodings suggest death is on the horizon — literally, on the horizon they can see.

In the end, the characters muse that the conflict across the way seems to be subsiding, and it seems the conflict on Inisherin might be too, in the darkest of manners. But that dialogue is meant to take on a note of bitter irony — or perhaps the darkest of comedy, which are two sides of the same coin in Ireland. Because we know, 100 years later, that the conflict didn’t subside in Ireland, even if a tenuous peace held in the Republic. Plenty more fighting would transpire, much of it in Northern Ireland (now part of the United Kingdom), specifically during the Troubles, which lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s. Plenty more blood would be spilled, and conflicts would divide Irish society for generations.

Which is what provides The Banshees of Inisherin — undoubtedly a comedy, and often a very funny one — with its tragic backbone. Friend against friend, brother against brother, love lost and grudges cracking the fabric of society; it’s all contained in this little fable. And the banshee foretelling doom stands in the background, shrieking and mourning it all.

The Banshees of Inisherin opens in theaters on October 21.

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