Saturday, January 28, 2023

Giving Someone the Finger

Film: The Banshees of Inisherin
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

The Banshees of Inisherin has attracted a great deal of attention this award season, including nine Oscar noms, with four of those in acting categories. I went into it with some worries, though, because of two of the actors. Colin Ferrell has been nominated for Best Actor. I’ve learned to appreciate Farrell, but I find him really hit (After Yang, In Bruges) and miss (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster). Possibly because my first encounter with him was Sacred Deer, I am not too keen on Barry Keoghan, one of the film’s two Best Supporting Actor nominees. So, I was hopeful, but a bit trepidatious.

This seems like a very simple film on the surface. In the years between World War I and II, on the island of Inisherin off the west coast of Ireland, life is simple and unassuming. Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) supplies milk to the local market and spends his afternoons drinking with his best friend folk musician Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson, also nominated for Best Supporting Actor). And then, one day Colm announces that he no longer wishes to spend any time with Pádraic.

What we learn in Colm’s confessions to the local priest (David Pearse) is that he has been experiencing some despair. While he doesn’t admit the despair to anyone else, he does say to Pádraic that he finds him dull, and that he wants to focus on something that will allow him to be remembered into the future. Initially, when Pádraic discovers that this has happened on April Fool’s Day, he decides that Colm was playing an elaborate joke, but Colm is not. He’s decided that Pádraic and time spent with him will amount to nothing. And, since he is sensing his impending mortality in some respects and would like to be remembered, he has decided to remove Pádraic from his life. He is, in fact so serious, that he says if Pádraic attempts to speak with him or bother him, Colm will cut off one of his own fingers to demonstrate his commitment to being left alone for each incident until Pádraic figures it out.

Thrown into the mix is Pádraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon, nominated for Best Supporting Actress), who is frustrated by all of this and wanting to leave the island for Ireland proper despite the war going on there between Protestant and IRA forces. The equivalent of the village idiot, Dominic (Barry Keoghan) sees the rift between Pádraic and Colm as a way to develop a friendship with Pádraic, attempt a romance with Siobhan, and get out from under the thumb of his abusive father Peadar (Gary Lydon), the local police officer.

There’s a great deal to like about The Banshees of Inisherin. For a language nerd like me, a big part of that is the dialogue, which is lovely to listen to. So much of what makes this film work as well as it does is placing it on this small island in this time. Much of that comes from the patois of the islanders and the expressions they use that feel so distinct that they give an immediate sense of location, not unlike the idiolect of Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. We know exactly who these people are because of this.

It is also deceptively simple and builds beautifully. This is a narrative dream, a story that can be described in a sentence or two, but that uses every moment of its running time to build up the various characters and show their interactions.

But it really is the performances that sells the picture. As much as I find Colin Farrell to be hit and miss, once you sit with this, you cannot deny the man’s talent. I can only think that much of my problems with him as an actor in the past have been directors that use him in ways that I don’t like. This is a role that he has fully inhabited, making Pádraic a true person. The same is true of Brendan Gleeson, but I’ve always been a Gleeson fan, so this is less surprising.

This brings me to Barry Keoghan, who I struggle to like. In this case, the performance is very good, but he’s also playing an annoying character. It’s hard for me to separate him from that, and so I guess the jury is still out. Kerry Condon, though, is in many ways the emotional center of the film, the one person who seems to be sane in everything that is happening around her.

Everything about The Banshees of Inisherin works. This is not a film I think I need to watch over and over, and it might not be one I want to watch again and again, but it’s a film that I am quite pleased to have seen. It’s rare that I want to read a screenplay, but this is one I would love to read, just to immerse myself in the language.

Why to watch The Banshees of Inisherin: It’s a narrative dream.
Why not to watch: After a certain point…you’re just waiting for the next finger.


  1. I do want to see this as I do like a lot of Martin McDonagh's work as I am intrigued by the subject matter.

    1. It's a delight, and in no small part because of the language.

      If he does another one like this, I might well consider myself a Colin Farrell fan.