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The Banshees of Inisherin review – a very melancholy comedy from Martin McDonagh

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson reunite for a sad tale about two men whose soured friendship leads them towards terrible things

What if your best friend decided they didn’t want to be your best friend anymore, seemingly for no reason at all? That is the deceptively simple premise that drives the events of Martin McDonagh’s new melancholy comedy The Banshees of Inisherin, which laments like a boozy fairytale, and plays out as a dual deconstruction of male friendship and the human desire to live meaningfully, set against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War.

Well, backdrop might be too strong a word. The war is certainly raging in the distance, signalled by the occasional sound of cannon fire across the sea, but the film – which takes place in an isolated coastal village in 1923 – never hammers on the point. Instead, McDonagh's trademark, repetition-heavy dialogue inflicts a slightly modern sensibility on the piece, pushing the film into something vaguely absurdist. Banshees wasn't based on a play, but the material has a distinctly play-like feel (no surprise, given the director is also a respected playwright). It's one of those rare films that feels like it's about everything and nothing at the same time.

“I just don't like you anymore,” Colm (a soul-searching Brendan Gleeson) tells his friend Pádraic (Colin Farrell) when he calls on him one afternoon, just like he's done the day before and the day before that. It isn't long until we find out why: Colm has grown tired of Pádraic's so-called “dullness,” and wants instead to spend his last years crafting a musical legacy he can be proud of. Pádraic, hurt and confused, refuses to respect Colm's request, which pushes the latter towards drastic measures. Every time Pádraic talks to him, Colm says he will cut off one of his own fingers.

And so begins a quiet, brooding feud between two men who probably shouldn't have found themselves in this place to begin with, the stakes increasing – and becoming more violent – with every subsequent encounter. The leisurely approach feels like a change of pace in light of McDonagh's more volatile efforts (though there is admittedly a fair bit of maiming), a chamber piece that dips its toes into the existential, retaining a sense that we're watching a kind of allegory or parable play out.

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson were first seen butting heads – though in a more affectionate way than here – in McDonagh's own In Bruges. Both are excellent in Banshees, Gleeson lending his character a sombre, poetic quality, but it's Farrell who steals the show in the role of a loveable fool, once again showing his knack for playing deeply flawed characters who are both likeable and complex, reiterating his position – and how far he's come – as one of the most interesting actors at work today.

Carter Burwell's moody, brewing storm-like score lends the work a restless, paranoid air, working beautifully to juxtapose with the film's inherent comic sensibility. Burwell’s scores have always felt like an essential part in giving McDonagh's movies their particularly pensive feel; this one perfectly conjures a subtle tension between the characters as they go about their lives, seemingly oblivious to the destruction on the way.

Amidst the lush green photography, heavenly to the extent we feel like we are witnessing a story set in an Irish limbo, McDonagh's characters go searching for answers where they – and we – might not find any. It intrigues rather than frustrates. This is a story of men who can't work through their feelings without resorting to violence, who drive each other towards unforgivable acts for reasons they may never truly understand. All that matters is that they can never go back to how things were before (read into the war stuff as you will).

Pulled by invisible strings, compelled by a nagging feeling in the gut that won't go away, The Banshees of Inisherin understands the sway brought on by a particular kind of ennui. It might not quite have the tightness or comic hit rate of In Bruges, nor the propulsion of Three Billboards. But it is a deceptively simple story that grapples with a whole spectrum of human emotions – a sad tale about sad men that is somehow laugh-out-loud funny.

The Banshees of Inisherin was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 21 October.

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