Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play “No Exit” premiered in 1944. Even if you are not familiar with the play, the finer points of existentialism, or even Sartre, you have probably heard one of its most famous lines – “Hell is other people.” While many of us probably feel that this phrase could be life’s official motto, we have to dig into the play to figure out exactly what is so hellish about other people. In “No Exit,” three individuals enter hell only to find a moderately comfortable room without a mirror, so their only means of understanding themselves lies in the ideas of their two companions. Sartre’s hell-of-the-introvert is the prevailing theme of the gorgeous film The Banshees of Inisherin.
Banshees is the latest from writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Like Three Billboards, expect this one to show up bigtime at the Oscars. While I am sure McDonagh, Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and Barry Keoghan will get their well-deserved nods and maybe snag a couple of naked statues, my hope is that the beautiful moving canvases of cinematographer Ben Davis will not go unrecognized.
McDonagh and Davis never lose focus on the one asset that unites every resident of the island of Inisherin: the slow passage of time. Sure, much of the credit should go to the stirring landscapes, sea, and sky selected to represent Inisherin, but the true brilliance of Banshees lies in the placement of the actors against these backdrops to give the characters and the spectators a sense of isolated claustrophobia, leading to pitch-perfect tension.
Farrell plays Pádraic, a village farmer who lives with his sister Siobhan (Condon) on the tiny rural island. Pádraic’s favorite pastime, spending the afternoons at the public house with pints of ale and his drinking buddy Colm (Gleeson), comes to an abrupt halt as Colm decides he would rather be without Pádraic’s company. This change is met with disappointment and chagrin by Pádraic, who finds himself spending more time around Siobhan and young town pariah Dominic (Keoghan), trying to figure out what it is about him that alienated Colm.
The premise is so comically simple that it might be the subject of a comedy sketch, and indeed, it sometimes includes beats worthy of uproarious laughter – the movie features the funniest confession booth scene since Johnny Knoxville’s The Ringer (2005). The tension and the dark edges of the tone, however, are present from the opening scenes. The audience feels Pádraic’s mounting, maddening frustration at the seriousness of Colm’s decision and the lengths to which he will go to keep away from Pádraic. Banshees hammers in the significance of its theme by dating its setting to the early 1920s, implying that, as the battle of the wills between the two men rages on Inisherin, the larger island across the canal is in the grips of the Irish Civil War. The movie is able to retain its simplicity in the outlook of Pádraic, who hears the blasts of war and wishes whoever is fighting – for whatever the reason – “Good luck.”
Inisherin is the perfect place to capture the balance between the simplicity and the weightiness of the self, and Inisherin itself is perfectly captured by McDonagh, cast, and crew. Accurately and suitably Irish accents and idioms are on display by each of the actors. If I had to pick a standout of these craftspeople, Keoghan as Dominic would win my vote for Best Supporting Actor, as his obnoxity intermingled with mild charm makes what could be an annoying auxiliary character immensely sympathetic. Those of the actors and director included, staying for the credits will offer the treat of seeing many-an-Irish-name involved in the production of this beautiful film.
The Banshees of Inisherin is now playing at The Athena Cinema.