There’s probably a dozen different ways to enjoy writer/director Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin.” A metaphor for the Irish Civil War of 1923, which takes place in the background of the film’s action. A riff on more traditional Irish dramas, taking its miserable tragedy so far that it flips into something resembling parody. Hell, you could even appreciate it simply as a story of two men at odds, and their increasingly hostile, darkly hilarious decisions as their dynamic spins of out of control.
Yet the core of the movie couldn’t be more simple: two men break up. Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleason) are best friends, and have been for years. And one day, Colm ends their friendship. No reason given. He’s just ready to move on. Try new things. Experience new friends. Spend time with his hobbies. The film tracks this decision in grim detail, and it’s as funny as it is shocking as it is tragic — very much the McDonagh cocktail, which he has perfected via films like “In Bruges” and plays like “The Pillowman.”
No matter what external baggage you bring to the movie, no matter how much you choose to mine the film for allegory or just accept its story on base terms, one thing remains consistent: the depiction of a broken relationship is as shattering as anything you’ll see on a screen in 2022. It’s as raw, as ugly, as bewildering, and yes, as darkly funny as a real-life break-up.
You know the cliche (and the cliched song lyric): love hurts. And cinema has spent over a century exploring the pains of romantic love, but rarely giving platonic love the same level of detail, attention, and care. Friendships in movies are there to cheer on, or shout down, a romance. They’re the supporting act to the real show. McDonagh, a filmmaker with a keen eye and ear for how people coexist (and sometimes don’t), understands the weight a friendship carries in the social contract, how a best friend has the importance of a lover, even though saying that out loud can engender an eye roll. We don’t want to admit we need friends — we’re supposed to be tough! — but humans are social creatures. Without that shoulder or that ear, without our pub buddy, what meaning do we have?
That’s the crisis in the soul of Pádraic, a simple but kind man who lives to hang out with his animals (Oscar campaign for Jenny the donkey starts now) and Colm, his lifelong buddy and frequent bar companion. There’s nothing else to do in the isolated but staggeringly beautiful community of Inisherin. It’s too tight, too small, too off the beaten path, to not have a buddy. When Colm calmly informs him that their friendship is over, and over for no clear reason, Pádraic spirals. What did he do wrong? How can he fix it?
McDonagh uses Pádraic as the film’s POV character — his confusion, his terror, his bitterness, is the lens through which we experience this baffling break-up, which only gets far, far worse before the credits roll.
Colin Farrell — one of the most talented and exciting actors on the planet now that he’s officially given up his Hollywood leading man career to chase actual character roles — gives the performance of a lifetime here. Pádraic is a man with no talents and no ambitions. He’s not smart, he’s not skilled, and he won’t be remembered. All he has going for him is the kindness he gives and the kindness he accepts in return. And that’s enough. He just needs his donkey, his support system of a sister (Kerry Condon, wonderful), and Colm, with whom with he spends countless hours in the pub.
So when Colm breaks up with him, he spirals immediately. He tries to fix things, he searches for solutions, he racks his brain, searching for any solution this predicament. Inisherin offers little, but that means there’s little to worry about. And now, he has everything to worry about. The one thing that gave his life meaning has been ripped away.
The film demands that you empathize with Pádraic, and perhaps you hesitate to do so at first. After all, surely he’s done something terribly wrong to earn the ire of Colm. Surely there’s a big reveal coming, a crime, a betrayal … something. But McDonagh’s script offers no such easy answers. Pádraic is just the good soul he appears to be. He’s blindsided. So we’re blindsided. And Farrell, so wounded, so lost, so broken by his failure to understand the why of his own despair, is our guide through the misery. It helps that he’s such a funny actor, and McDonagh’s script so acerbically, bleakly hilarious. This would be the most miserable movie of the decade if all involved weren’t embracing gallows humor.
Colm might as well have broken up with us. And all we can do is scream, laugh, and cry, all in equal measure.
Equally as powerful as Brendan Gleason as Colm, but it’s a performance that buries the lede. Because “The Banshees of Inisherin” introduces its action from Pádraic’s perspective, Colm’s decision to break up their friendship for no clear reason (to say nothing of his increasingly hostile and terrifying methods to keep them broken up) paints him as the aggressor, the aloof, cruel ex-friend. But Gleason never plays Colm as a monster. He’s clearly popular in the community, a musician beloved by locals and visitors alike, and he’s wise, soft-spoken, and has a self-aware read on his place in the world that Pádraic could never achieve.
It’s that latter element that unlocks Colm, and powers Gleason’s performance. From the outside looking in, Colm is irrational. A bully at best, a monster at worst. But the more time we spend with him, the more we realize that he’s… well, he’s depressed. He’s powered by dread and an aching sadness that has no direct cause. It just … is. And it always will be. It’s probably been there for years. As a portrait of how depression ruins a life, and how the fragments of that depression send splinters into the community, family, and friends of the suffering individual, “The Banshees of Inisherin” is unparalleled. Depression is an act of slow-motion destruction, a desire to destroy one’s self and remove all reasons to enjoy life, so you no longer have an excuse to continue existing. No, it does not make sense. But it’s here. It’s real. In Gleason’s performance, you see a man who wishes he was dim enough to not feel this way. A man who is too smart for his own good. He’s going to burn down the most important part of his life to spite himself. His pain cannot be contained within one soul.
And from his perspective, the break-up is heartbreaking for its own completely unique reasons. Depression is irrational despair. It doesn’t care who your best friend is. This has to be the only option.
All Endings Are Tragedies
Part of the pleasure and pain of watching “The Banshees of Inisherin” is seeing how far Pádraic and Colm’s relationship falls, how quickly it deteriorates, and how we continue to empathize with both parties for very different reasons. The film is so funny, its performances so good, its scenery so beautiful, that the tragedy and bleakness is cushioned — one human tragedy is a dark comedy if you step far enough away, right?
There’s a lot more going on in the film — subplots and key characters and relationships that often only tangentially orbit the core action — but it always comes back to the break-up. The break-up with no hero, no villain, just two wounded parties who deserve better, brought to heartbreaking and hilarious life by two actors who have never been better. All things must end, the film notes. How much control we have over that end, and whether we end them on our own terms or not, is the chaotic variable. A break-up, romantic or platonic, is its own kind of death. And unlike an actual death, we have to find a way to keep living when it happens.
Love hurts, indeed.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” opens in theaters on October 21, 2022.
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