I believe in reading as a creative experience. The Reader comes to the work with their intellect, imagination, expectations, wants and needs, and sets out, consciously or not, to forge their very own “version” of the original text, however sacred. And that “version” will be different from yours, mine or anyone else’s. As with The Reader, I believe it is the same for The Viewer Of The Film Or Play (or, indeed, The Listener Of The LP). I also believe in the mighty McDonaghs.
The UK-born, Irish descent filmmakers/writer-director-producers/whatchamacallits, Martin (also an acclaimed playwright) and John Michael McDonagh have both delivered a number of quality, darkly comic, thought-provoking and award-winning film dramas and comedy-dramas, none better than Martin’s The Banshees of Inisherin (2022), reuniting the star pairing of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson from In Bruges (2008).
It’s still easy to get the brothers mixed up, easy to forget to yourself which one made which movie, told which story. Unlike the brilliant and celebrated Coens, Joel and Ethan, these boys work separately, not together, although there are shared collaborators and Martin has again appropriated the Coens’ regular composer, Carter Burwell, for crucial music duties on Banshees (and, of course, directed Joel’s wife, Frances McDormand, to the Oscar in 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
This 1920s-set comedy-drama takes us to the titular island, a remote location off the coast of Ireland, divorced geographically and, it seems, ideologically from the on-going Civil War on the mainland. Although there is talk of the Free State, executions and the IRA, the people of Inisherin really couldn’t give a shite.
Farrell and Gleeson are two old friends who have simply fallen out – only it’s not quite so simple. “I just don’t like ya no more,” says Gleeson’s hangdog Colm to Farrell’s Padraic, who is all skewed eyebrows, scrunched up frustration and sheer bewilderment. What in the early going seems a possibly manageable anomaly in the two fellas’ long-running relationship soon takes a sinister turn. Friendship becomes feud and both must receive or surrender their “pound of flesh”, whether they really want to or not.
Bring your imagination, your intellect, your expectations, and prepare to be confounded. Sacred texts – from the Bible to Shakespeare to Beckett to Father Feckin’ Ted – are held up to the dimming light to be peered at. The more ancient the texts, the more mythic the references, the more complicated it seems to get, as with the Banshees of the title.
Don’t be fooled by the trailers – you’d think this was full of gags, some kind of an Oirish Brokeback Mountain spoof, a Joke-Craic Mountain? Bloke Spoke Back Mountain? Choke Whack Mountain? There is much humour, it must be said, but you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face before the end of it (Padraic just can’t quit Colm, but when man-to-man “impure thoughts” are mentioned, they are soon dismissed in one of cinema’s great confessional box scenes).
Farrell and Gleeson are suitably superb, making the most of the rural rhythms of McDonagh’s sure-footed dialogue, like a playfully brutal, humorously harsh Irish version of David Mamet Speak. But it is the supporting cast who flesh out the proceedings and often take centre-stage for stand-out moments – Barry Keoghan (as Inisherin’s “village idiot” – or not?), and the wonderful Kerry Condon (Siobhan, well-read sister to Padraic) share a scene by the waterside that is beautifully written and performed, intensely emotional and natural, the pathos and poetry turned up to 11, the subtext deeper than the dark sea.
Keoghan appeared with Farrell in the powerful, often perverse The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017) and seems to specialise in supporting roles that either fade into the background or bestride the whole project like a colossus, or somehow, magically, subtly, manage to do both at the same time. Martin McDonagh here works with the mythic and the metaphorical in a similar way to Greek-born filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, with Sacred Deer and his other pictures.
Condon’s Siobhan is desperate to escape life on the island, avoid the fate of becoming a “Banshee” herself – or is she one already? Is it Siobhan who first (unwittingly?) sets the feud in motion with what appears to be a flippant, throwaway remark?
The Banshees, you see, are prophets of doom, part little old ladies, part town gossips, part witches out of Macbeth (Colm calls the tune he’s composing on his fiddle “The Banshees Of Inisherin”, for no other reason, he says, than he likes the sound of it, the repeated “shhh” … recalling the sinister sibilance of Macbeth’s conspiratorial soliloquy: “… If the assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch, with his surcease, success …”).
For all the crooked old Banshees’ “knowledge”, or the real weight of their predictions or prophecies, it seems tragic fate is an inescapable part of the rugged landscape itself, with a fork in the road where Our Lady gazes down perpetually. Fates forged from the very despair of the people, their ancient history, their oh-so-human weaknesses – formed by the farming tools and other implements that always seem to be on hand, a pole with a hook at the end of it, a rustic set of shears.
For the McDonagh record, John Michael has made The Guard (2011, Gleeson), Calvary (2014, Gleeson, Gary Lydon, Pat Shortt, all the supporting cast shine again), War On Everyone (2016, an under-rated genius of a movie), and The Forgiven (2021, one of Ralph Fiennes’ many finest hours). Martin has made In Bruges (Farrell, Gleeson, Fiennes; Burwell music), Seven Psychopaths (2016, Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson; Burwell again), and Three Billboards (Also with Condon; Oscars for McDormand and Rockwell, nominations for Best Picture, McDonagh, Harrelson and Burwell).
Or have I got it all wrong again, mixed it up, missed out Caleb Landry Jones, or someone or something else? Like music-loving Colm, when he says Mozart was 17th Century, instead of 18th? Could he get it wrong? Everybody remembers Mozart, he says. And everyone who sees it will surely remember The Banshees Of Inisherin.