- Writer-director Martin McDonagh fuses his trademark dark humor with something altogether more profound about the nature of friendship, creativity and mortality in his new drama, The Banshees of Inisherin.
- The Banshees of Inisherin follows a soured friendship between the cheerful but dim Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and the more tortured, artistic Colm (Brendan Gleeson).
- Cinematographer Ben Davis used the landscapes of two Irish islands, Achill Island and Inishmore Island, to convey the dueling personalities of the film’s two main characters.
With the The Banshees of Inisherin, writer-director Martin McDonagh has fused his trademark dark humor with something altogether more profound about the nature of friendship, creativity and mortality.
It follows a soured friendship between the cheerful but dim Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and the more tortured, artistic Colm (Brendan Gleeson), who summarily tells Pádraic one morning that he no longer wants to be pals. Over the course of the film, Pádraic’s initial bafflement curdles into resentment, while Colm’s attempts to stay away from him in their tiny community repeatedly fail.
On the face of it, a relationship breakup is a thin plot on which to hang a film, but this was McDonagh’s starting point.
“I just wanted to tell a very simple breakup story,” he told Deadline’s Joe Utichi. “And to see how far a simple comedic and dark plot could go.”
READ MORE: Director Martin McDonagh Didn’t Want To “Destroy the Legacy” Between Reunited Stars Colin Farrell And Brendan Gleeson With ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ (Deadline)
For all its comedy, the drama is best described as a melancholic ballad. McDonagh, who won best screenplay at the Venice film festival , says he tried to imbue the friends’ breakup “with all of the sadness of the breakup of a love relationship… because I think we’ve all been both parties in that equation,” he told Miranda Sawyer at The Guardian. “And there’s something horrible about both sides. Like knowing you have to break up with someone is a horrible, horrible thing as well. I’m not sure which is the best place to be in.”
Depicting that sadness accurately was his intent, he explained to AV Club’s Jack Smart: “It was about painting a truthful picture of a breakup, really. A sad breakup, a platonic breakup, which can be as heavy and sad and destructive as a divorce, as a sexual or loving relationship coming to an end.”
READ MORE: How Martin McDonagh made a platonic breakup more devastating than any romantic split in The Banshees Of Inisherin (AV Club)
There’s more to the film than this. Setting the story in Ireland in 1923, with the Irish Civil War playing out in the background, is a metaphor that spins the tale a wider web.
“You don’t need any knowledge of Irish history,” McDonagh told The Atlantic’s David Sims. “All you need to know, really, is that [the civil war] was over a hairline difference of beliefs which had been shared up until the year before. And it led to horrific violence. The main story of Banshees is that, too: negligible differences that end up, well, spoiler alert, not in a good place.”
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The divide between the one-time friends spirals into violence so quickly that the original relatively mild cause for dispute is forgotten. “I think that’s what was interesting about this story, that things unravel and get worse and worse, sometimes without, oftentimes without intending to,” McDonagh told UPROXX’s Mike Ryan. “And then become unforgivable and irreparable. And I guess that’s true of wars as much as is true of this little story about the two guys.”
READ MORE: Martin McDonagh On Getting The ‘In Bruges’ Band Back Together In ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’(UPROXX)
There are other layers too. Not least of which is what IndieWire’s Eric Kohn shares as McDonagh’s “deep questions about national identity,” both within the series and his own personal identity. Despite writing Irish characters (in this film and his debut, In Bruges) and setting previous theatrical plays in the country, McDonagh hails from London, although his parents are indeed from west coast Ireland.
McDonagh’s last movie set in the country was the 2004 short Six Shooter, which won an Academy Award. McDonagh’s first trilogy of plays, starting with The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1996, took place in Galway. His second trilogy — which remains unfinished — took place on the Aran Islands, and Banshees was shot on Inishmore and Achill, two islands off Ireland’s west coast.
Inisherin itself is fictional, partly to put the real events of the civil war at one remove from the events onscreen, and also because he and cinematographer Ben Davis use the landscapes of the two islands to convey the dueling personalities of his two main characters.
“All in all, it certainly seems like McDonagh wants to grapple with the history and personality of the country after setting it aside for almost two decades,” Kohn notes.
At the same time, the filmmaker’s depiction of Ireland risks backlash. “There’s a certain degree of unease in Ireland about McDonagh’s post-modern, heightened versions of Irishness,” shares Irish film critic Donald Clarke. “The films and plays do well here. But there is a tension in Ireland about his treatment of the country.”
Critics also point to supposed southern stereotypes in the Oscar-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Kohn indicates that McDonagh was often lambasted on the promotional tour of that movie for depicting a racist police officer (Sam Rockwell) with some measure of empathy.
“His characters are exaggerated to an almost allegorical degree in order to comment on the society around them, which has led some American audiences to see his view of the country as naïve,” Kohn writes. “Banshees burrows into the stereotype of Irish people at pubs, guzzling pints to the tune of ebullient folk music, and molds it into an emotionally resonant character study.”
That character study is also linked to a meditation on death and how an artist should make best use of their time. In the film, Colm is a musician and wants to use the rest of his days creatively, rather than sitting in the pub with Pádraic talking nonsense. Which raises several questions, including: do you have to be selfish and cruel in order to create? Can an artist be nice?
That is accompanied with a threat: If Pádraic doesn’t leave him alone, then Colm will start lopping off his own fingers.
“I thought it was interesting that an artist would threaten the thing that allows him to make art,” McDonagh said. “Does that thing make him the artist?”
READ MORE: ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ Confronts the One Subject Martin McDonagh Doesn’t Want to Discuss (IndieWire)
It’s clearly something that preys on McDonagh’s mind. “I’m 52. You start thinking, Am I wasting time? Should I be devoting all my time, however much is left, to the artistic?” he commented to Sims. “That’s something that’s always going on in my head — the waste of time, the duty to art, all that. So you start off being on [Pádraic’s] side and understanding the hurt, but you have to be completely truthful to the other side… You should feel conflicted.”
McDonagh says decided that he’s going to spend what creative time he has left — he reckons “around 25 years” — making films rather than plays. His reasoning? Films are quicker.
“I always used to think they took longer than plays, but with this one we were filming it a year ago, and now it’s out,” he tells Sawyer. “But if you’re lucky enough to have successful plays… to get that right with each move, to cast it and take care of it, go to rehearsals, that’s five years of your life.”
READ MORE: Martin McDonagh: ‘No one really tries to make sad films any more’ (The Guardian)
It was also clearly nagging at him to unleash the genie of Gleeson and Farrell’s chalk and cheese interplay that audiences lapped up in the 2008 cult hit In Bruges.
“It feels like it was two days ago that we made In Bruges together but time passes so quickly,” he said in response to The Playlist’s Gregory Ellwood wondering if there will be a third collaboration. “None of us are getting any younger. I don’t have an idea now, but just that little ticking bomb is somewhere in me. So, I do want to get them back together.”
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In The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh reunites the pair only to break them up in the first scene. “A delectable bit of cruelty for the audience,” observes Sims.
Although he made In Bruges to his satisfaction, the director apparently faced pressure from execs at Focus Features at every turn. He now insists on having the final cut, which he got for Banshees, a movie produced by Disney-owned Searchlight. Kohn points out that his four movies have all been made for around $15 million, a manageable scale by studio standards that lets McDonagh get away with creative freedom.
“That is the reason why the films are singular,” McDonagh said. “It is all me. It hasn’t been watered down, for good or bad.”