Venice Review: Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson In Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Banshees Of Inisherin’

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Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh is up to more deliciously fiendish tricks in The Banshees of Inisherin, a simple and diabolical tale of a friendship’s end shot through with bristling humor and sudden moments of startling violence. It world premieres in competition at the Venice Film Festival Monday. Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and the small handful of supporting players make the most of the author’s vibrant prose in McDonagh’s first film since Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri five years ago.

. - Credit: Deadline
. - Credit: Deadline

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“I just don’t like ya’ no more,” old bear Colm Doherty (Gleeson) bluntly informs the younger Padraic (Farrell) when the two encounter one another at the pub where the few inhabitants of the tiny, bleakly beautiful seaside community above the pounding Atlantic inevitably spend most of their time. One can only deduce that these men have spent endless hours with each other over the years — there are few options other than staying inside at home — and that they know each other inside and out.

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But Colm means business. He doesn’t want to explain or analyze his new state of mind; the most he says is that he’s tired of “aimless chatting,” that he just doesn’t “have a place for dullness” in his life and wants “a bit of peace.” That’s it, he’s made his decision and doesn’t feel like he needs to make any further comment.

Given that it’s inevitable the men will continue to see one another nearly every day makes things a bit awkward, but Colm remains steadfast, shunning all friendly approaches. The old man shortly goes to confession for the first time in ages and triggers an argument that leads him and the priest to yell the f-word at each other. That may be a cinematic first.

Again confronted by Padraic, who plausibly would like to hash through their differences to come to some kind of understanding and re-start of their friendship, Colm one-ups his former pal once again, warning that he’ll start cutting off his own fingers if Padraic talks to him again. This stops the befuddled old kid in his tracks for the moment, but it seems that Colm means business and will be as good as his word if Padraic as much as smiles in his direction. It all but goes without saying that Gleeson entirely dominates when he’s on screen.

The story hinges on a small and amusing conceit, one that would not immediately suggest that it could be sustained throughout a nearly two-hour film. But McDonagh, with his seasoning in legit theater and long-proven ingenuity at spinning a mere anecdote into a full-bodied work of substance, continues to sustain interest in what’s going on at a high level through a mixture of unanticipated twists and turns and pointed serious moments.

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The latter most assuredly arrive in due course; without spoiling anything, it’s fair to say that the blade has not been alluded to for no good reason and, when it does appear, it’s put to gruesome work. It will also pass over most people’s heads that the spring of 1923 represented the climax of the Irish Civil War which culminated in the long-sought Irish Free State. One can read whatever one likes into the relevance of this setting to the story being told; the film stands solidly on its own without this historical layer, but it also may feed Colm’s mood and attitudes. Also factoring in unspoken ways connected to Colm’s behavior are the titular banshees, which in Gaelic folklore represent female spirits that serve warning that death may soon lurk around the corner.

A secondary character that could usefully have been expanded is that of Siobhan, Colm’s sister, who is intelligent, attractive, sensitive to the vagaries of the human condition and is, she certainly recognizes, wasting away in this tiny community with no prospects, professionally or personally. In the limited screen time she has, Kerry Condon is terrific in the role, and her story could easily be made into a central one in a different take on, or extension of, the same material.

The film’s beautiful craftsmanship invites one to revel in the bleakly spectacular setting and cinematographer Ben Davis makes the most of it; you don’t need to be David Lean to make fantastic images out of the deep green landscapes and staggering ocean turbulence along the western coast. Carter Burwell’s score also amplifies the power and the glory of the setting.

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