The Banshees of Inisherin review

Martin McDonagh gets the gang back together for this pitch-black existentialist comedy

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banshees

Dir. Martin McDonagh, distributed by Searchlight Pictures

What does it mean to live a worthwhile life? Is it enough to be kind to others? Or is it more important to leave a legacy, something which will last beyond your mortal existence – even at the expense of your personal relationships? Or maybe, since we’re all ultimately going the same way, it’s best to simply amuse yourself, however you can, until the inevitable comes.

Reckoning with mortality isn’t usually very fun, but The Banshees of Inisherin approaches these huge, terrifying questions with its tongue firmly in cheek. Writer and director Martin McDonagh has always enjoyed walking a line between the profound and the profane, ever since his masterful film debut, 2007’s In Bruges. But The Banshees of Inisherin is surely his most confident work yet; a rich, blackly-comic meditation on the human condition. Depicting the collapse of a friendship on the (fictional) Irish island of Inisherin in 1923, the film reunites McDonagh with the stars of In Bruges, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, whose awesome chemistry remains undiminished.

Farrell plays Pádraic Súilleabháin, a gentle soul who wants nothing more from life than to tend his farm animals and chew the fat down the local pub. Not a “thinker,” as one of his friends observes but “one of life’s good guys.” One day, he is confused and upset to discover that his erstwhile best friend and drinking buddy, Colm Doherty (Gleeson), no longer wants to speak to him. Colm is getting on in years, and has resolved to spend the time he has left composing tunes on his fiddle, among other intellectual pursuits, rather than being forced into inane conversations with the chronically dull Pádraic. The casual cruelty of this decision is incomprehensible to Pádraic, and his increasingly desperate attempts to resuscitate the friendship only anger Colm further. As the conflict between these two men slowly grows from farce into horror, sounds of distant gunfire echo ominously from the mainland a few hundred yards away, where the Irish Civil War rages on.

Colin Farrell has already delivered two remarkable performances this year, with transformative turns in Matt Reeves’ The Batman and Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives, and in The Banshees of Inisherin he makes it a hattrick. By design, Pádraic is a witless character, devoid of charisma or sophistication. And yet Farrell fills him with depths of humanity, crafting an immensely sympathetic, even tragic figure, too gentle for the malice of the world around him. Farrell’s interplay with Gleeson is marvellous, even outpacing the brilliance of their earlier double-act from In Bruges.

As usual with a McDonagh script, their repartee is sharp and consistently very funny, but the decay of Pádraic and Colm’s relationship carries a bitter melancholy which suggests a deep, existential anguish. They are two men with utterly opposing perspectives on life (and death), lacking the awareness or vocabulary to comprehend their own feelings of loss, let alone relate to one another. And while Farrell and Gleeson provide the film’s backbone, there are some beautiful supporting performances. Kerry Condon is Inisherin’s closest thing to a voice of reason as Pádraic’s long-suffering sister, Siobhan, while Barry Keoghan is both hilarious and heartrending as a vulgar village idiot concealing his own trauma.

Repeated viewings are sure to illuminate greater depths to The Banshees of Inisherin. There are references to Irish history and folklore which invite further investigation, and strange portents are scattered throughout which suggest forces of a spiritual nature at play – perhaps even the elusive banshees of the film’s title. The island of Inisherin is a community which feels alive and mysterious: full of dread and joy; hate and love; life and, of course, death. It’s a Godforsaken island of perverts, gossips, weirdos, and drunkards – and I can’t wait to go back.

Verdict

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Come for the laughs, stay for the despair!

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review

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A mature yet blackly comic study of personal trauma in middle-America

The title of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri places the film within an oddly specific setting, but this emphasis might be misleading. Although the story is confined within the small, fictional town of Ebbing, the events which unfold seem to stand for American society as a whole – and it is not a flattering picture. Depicting a community where ugly tensions simmer beneath a benign exterior, writer and director Martin McDonagh clearly has something to say about the rage and disharmony which has come to characterise the modern United States. The film offers no easy answers to the broken society which it observes, but endeavours to ask where all this anger has come from – and how we might find our way back.

The third film from the British-Irish film-maker, Three Billboards is McDonagh’s most mature and rewarding work yet. Anyone familiar with his previous comedy-dramas, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, will be well acquainted with his acerbic and often profane wit, but this film also relies on a weighty sense of tragedy. Indeed, the story functions primarily as a study of personal trauma, and how far we allow it to define ourselves and our communities. Almost every character within Ebbing is afflicted with their own, private tragedy, and none more so than Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes.

The tough and abrasive Mildred is McDormand’s meatiest role since her Oscar-winning turn in the Coen brother’s 1996 crime-caper, Fargo. With a permanent scowl and a John Wayne swagger, Mildred always cuts a fearsome presence, but McDormand also inhabits her character with the merest hint of vulnerability beneath the harsh exterior. The result is a multi-faceted performance which feels as authentically lived-in as her battered blue overalls.

McDormand inhabits her character with the merest hint of vulnerability

Opposite McDormand, Woody Harrelson is routinely excellent as local Sheriff Bill Willoughby, but Sam Rockwell captivates as his moronic deputy, officer Jason Dixon. An utterly reprehensible and unscrupulous personality, Dixon represents all that is wrong with American law enforcement, yet Rockwell imbues his performance with a surprising degree of humanity. In many ways, Dixon feels like the emotional heart of the film; angry, morally confused, but ultimately a product of his environment.

In this way, McDonagh’s script refuses to allow any of its players to revert to cliché or predictability. Ebbing is a community populated by characters who are continually one-step ahead of the audience’s expectations. It’s refreshing to see a film defined by moral ambiguities and shades of grey, and it allows the drama to move into satisfyingly unexpected territory. In refusing to accommodate a binary world of heroes and villains, Three Billboards makes a case for the value of empathy and understanding over anger and cynicism.

It’s refreshing to see a film defined by moral ambiguities

Fortunately, despite the film’s philosophical aspirations, Three Billboards also finds time to be very funny. The ease with which McDonagh moves between hilarity and heartbreak is something to behold, much thanks to the phenomenal range of McDormand and Rockwell. The blackly comic tone never feels like a betrayal of the film’s sombre subject matter, but a natural extension of Ebbing’s peculiar world. Nevertheless, Ebbing represents more than an idiosyncratic setting – it stands for all the communities which live in fear and resentment of one another, where violence and corruption is accepted as a matter of fact. These three billboards might as well be outside anywhere.

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