Director, playwright, screenwriter and four-time Academy Award nominee, Irishman Martin McDonagh is back after the Oscar-nominated triumph that was “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) with the Ireland-set, pitch-black comedy “The Banshees of Inisherin.” The film reunites actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, whose performances helped make his acclaimed 2008 neo-noir “In Bruges” one of McDonagh’s very best.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” is set in the 1920s during the Irish Civil War and takes its title from a song composed by one of two longtime friends. The friendship comes to a stark, sudden end when the fiddle player and composer named Colm Doherty (Gleeson) inexplicably announces in the opening that he’s done spending time with neighbor Padraic Suilleabhain (Farrell) because Pedraic is “too dull.” The sensitive, if dull Pedraic is devastated. Occasionally, the people of Inisherin, a lush, green island off the coast of Ireland, see and hear rifle fire and bombs. But for the most part, they do not bother themselves with the fighting. In fact, the violent, local policeman has been summoned to the mainland to attend executions, and he does not care which side is getting executed. He just wants his payday.
Shot by Ben Davis (“The King’s Man”) with music by Carter Burwell (“True Grit”) and featuring Sheila Flitton (“The Northman”) as the neighborhood sooth-saying witch Mrs. McCormick, the film casts a powerful, often funny spell. The sea is a constant presence. Crosses, some of them Celtic, crowd the skyline.
Padraic lives with his lovely, unwed bookworm sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon, TV’s “Better Call Saul”). He tends some cows and an affectionate little donkey named Jenny. When he isn’t with his friend Colm, Pedraic might be sharing a bottle with Dominic Kearney (a brilliant Barry Keoghan), the cop’s son. Every day around 2 p.m., Pedraic walks to Colm’s house by the beach, where the old man lives with his sheep dog and an odd, but interesting collection of trinkets. It’s their usual time to hit the pub, until the unexpected and unwanted breakup.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” is about the value of friendship, especially as we get older (and whether Dominic is ever going to lose his virginity, which he offers freely). The sudden estrangement of Pedraic and Colm mirrors the insanity and intransigence of the Civil War. Colm swears that if Pedraic speaks to him again, he will cut off a finger. This threat is both physical and symbolic. If Colm cuts off even one finger, it horribly compromises his ability to play the violin. If he cuts off the rest, as he also crazily threatens to do, he will never play again.
McDonagh, whose credits also include “A Skull in Connemara,” “The Cripple of Inishmann” and “A Behanding in Spokane” is obsessed with mutilation and dark secrets. But the finger routine did not sit well with me. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is also the title of a third, unpublished play in a trilogy by McDonagh. This film version is flawed, but not fatally. Its comic bits can be delightful, especially the relationship between the donkey and the sweet, “dull” dairyman.
(“The Banshees of Inisherin” contains profanity, graphic nudity and mature themes)
“THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN”
Rated R. At the Landmark Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner.