Monday, March 6, 2023

Martin McDonagh, Almost Reformed: The Banshees of Inisherin

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin.

Set on an island off the coast of Ireland in the early 1920s, the era of the original “troubles,” where the locals can hear the gunshots marking the violence of the virtual civil war from the mainland, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is a portrait of Irish life in a goldfish-bowl community. The two main characters, Colm Doherty (Brendan Glesson) and Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), are buddies who have been drinking together regularly in the local pub. But one day, when Pádraic comes by to pick up his friend at home for their daily pint, Colm refuses to answer the door. He’s decided that he doesn’t like Pádraic anymore – that he’s a dullard with nothing to say for himself and that Colm, who leans toward melancholy, no longer wants to waste his time hanging out with him when he could be focusing on writing music and playing it with enthusiastic graduate music students.

The trailers make the movie look like an achingly broad farce with a silly premise, but it’s not – it is simultaneously mournful and darkly comic. I’ve hated the McDonagh plays I’ve seen (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Pillowman) and the movies (In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Especially in Pillowman and the truly repellent Three Billboards, he pretends to be making profound statements about violence and racism while operating out of a comic-book sensibility that actually revels in both. These are works of appalling exploitation that disdain both their own characters and the audience. But Banshees is quite different. In the first half of the movie McDonagh invokes a jagged, often cruel brand of folk comedy the way playwrights have sometimes used it, to comment satirically on the way people behave when they’re at their worst. Brecht did it, and Dürrenmatt in The Visit, but if I had to guess I’d say that McDonagh’s model is an Irish classic, John Millington Synge’s 1907 The Playboy of the Western World, which is about the glorification of violence. For many years Playboy was a staple of the Irish repertory, but it’s rarely performed these days, unless Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, where it premiered in 1907, still revives it. In Banshees you feel the Synge impulse toward the mordantly humorous in the scenes between the two men and between Pádraic and his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), as well as the ones that involve the local priest (David Pearse), a nosey shopkeeper (Bríd Ní Neachtain) and a cop (Gary Lydon) who’s quick with his fists. They’re funny in ways that nothing I’ve encountered by McDonagh has ever been. And instead of the usual bop-on-the-head tonal shifts he has tended to specialize in, this time he seems determined to experiment with real tonal complexity. He’s less successful with the cop’s abused son, played by Barry Keoghan, and a ghoulish old bat played by Sheila Flitton who may or may not be prescient. (On the other hand, he does marvelous work with the animals – a pony, a donkey, a collie and a horse that looks like all the troubles of the world are sitting on his sage brow.)

If only McDonagh had been able to resist all of the old temptations straight through the picture. When Pádraic – understandably – can’t accept Colm’s sudden withdrawal of his friendship, Colm threatens to cut off one of his own fingers. At that point you see danger looming on the movie’s horizon, so it’s not exactly a surprise when, at exactly the midpoint, he makes good on the threat, and the film unravels. It becomes grotesque, portentous and pretentious. But there’s a good deal to be said in its favor. It’s extremely well made and beautifully shot (by Ben Davis), and Farrell, Condon and especially Gleeson give superlative performances. Farrell has become, in recent years, one of those actors whose work you don’t dare to miss if you care about acting. He was also splendid in Thirteen Lives and the TV miniseries The North Water, and there’s not the smallest overlap in the three roles. And Gleeson, a master from way back, hit a career peak in the series Mr. Mercedes (based on the Stephen King detective novels) and matches it in The Banshees of Inisherin. Watching Three Billboards, I mostly felt sorry for the actors, who were either crucified on McDonagh’s insultingly low dramatic notions or seemed anxious to sell themselves out. You can hardly believe the director who gets such precise character work out of his cast here can be the same man.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.    

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