In Martin McDonagh’s 2008 comedy In Bruges, the fledgling Irish hitman Ray, played by Colin Farrell, is asked during a visit to an art gallery by his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to define purgatory. “[It’s] kind of like the in-betweeny one,” Ray explains, gazing intently at an apocalyptic canvas by Hieronymus Bosch. “You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either.”
Whether or not In Bruges is a great movie is up for debate, but it’s definitely not shit: It’s a sly and quotable romp that shows off its creator’s gift for nasty, staccato dialogue in the Harold Pinter–Quentin Tarantino mold. When McDonagh is on his game, the four-letter words that come spilling out of his antiheroes have a musical quality—they’re soaring and dramatic, like arias of profanity. “You better fucking be in tomorrow night when I fucking call again, otherwise there’ll be fucking hell to pay,” thunders Ray and Ken’s boss, played by a never-funnier Ralph Fiennes, into their hotel room’s answering machine. “I’m fucking telling you.”
When In Bruges came out, Farrell was still negotiating his mid-career shift from a brooding would-be movie star to a soulful, resourceful character actor—the sweet spot where he’s resided ever since. As for Gleeson, he was seemingly born an expert, weathered character actor, with decades of honorable service elevating franchise mega-productions and scrappy U.K. indies alike. (Earlier this month, he actually got to host Saturday Night Live, a so-so effort featuring an all-time great preview skit.) McDonagh doubled down on the intergenerational dynamic between his two leads, leveraging Farrell’s callow, protean charisma against Gleeson’s veteran gravitas. Thrown together into the whirling verbal maelstrom of McDonagh’s screenplay—with its elaborate exposition, narrative switchbacks, and thick atmosphere of rage and remorse—Farrell and Gleeson held their own, and then some. It’s like they were born to bicker.
This feeling of performers as perfectly matched opponents has only gotten richer and deeper 15 years later in McDonagh’s new drama, The Banshees of Inisherin, which reteams Farrell and Gleeson in a similar configuration, to superlative effect. The film—set in the Aran Islands during 1923, amid the waning days of the Irish Civil War—got a 15-minute standing ovation in Venice and looks set to be a fall-season awards contender. (“I tried to leave at the seventh minute,” joked Farrell to Stephen Colbert.) Like In Bruges, it’s an ornery study of masculine rituals and psychology that also doubles as a meditation on purgatory; the difference is that where In Bruges’s antiheroes were effectively rubberneckers in a foreign city—“Ray, you are about the worst tourist in the world”—the characters in Banshees have all but merged with their home turf. They’re as much a part of the landscape as the fields and the cliffs. Neither aging musician Colm (Gleeson), who lives alone in a large house on the shoreline, nor cheery dairy farmer Pádraic (Farrell), who’s situated farther uphill with sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), harbor illusions about ever leaving Inisherin—alive or dead. What begins to drive a wedge in the pair’s long-standing friendship are their differing philosophies on what to do with the time they have left there in the great in-betweeny.
For Colm, the answer is a peculiar and perverse form of self-flagellation. Weary of Pádraic’s affably mindless line of conversation—including detailed inventories of what’s been popping up in his pet donkey’s stool—and anxious that he won’t accomplish anything worthwhile in life if he can’t hear himself think, he offers his pal an ultimatum: Leave me alone or I’ll start cutting my own fingers off, one at a time. At first, the regulars at the pub think Colm is taking the piss, but the more matter-of-factly he repeats his terms, the more his words convey sincere loathing. The fact that Pádraic is—as he’d surely be the first to tell you—an extremely nice guy only hardens Colm’s resolve. “I just don’t like you no more,” he rasps when Pádraic asks what he’s done to deserve being put in such a terrible position. “You do like me,” Pádraic insists after a long, torturous pause. “I don’t,” comes the firm reply.
No spoilers here about the degree to which Colm follows through on his vow; but lest one suspect some kind of bloodless, picture-postcard period farce, it’s worth remembering that, fondness for dirty dialogue aside, McDonagh’s calling card as a writer is the embrace of extremity. His scripts for stage and screen alike are rife with brutal violence, whether experienced or remembered. McDonagh’s first and most devastating play, 1996’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, concerns an isolated aging mother-daughter duo whose mutual dependency suggests empathy curdled into lethal contempt. Cooped up with nothing but their resentment, the women torture each other with boiling oil. Tony Award–winning The Pillowman, whose Broadway cast included Jeff Goldblum, Billy Crudup, and a then-unknown Michael Stuhlbarg, is a grim fairy tale about fairy tales, laced with graphic descriptions of torture and child murder. The title of 2010’s A Behanding in Spokane, McDonagh’s first play set in the United States, is not a metaphor; the protagonist, played on stage by Christopher Walken, has been searching for his missing appendage for 27 years.
That idea of truth in advertising also extended to films like Seven Psychopaths (about a septet of you know whats) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which is about exactly what it says it is and, even more than In Bruges, solidified McDonagh’s big-screen cred. That’s not all it did, of course: Tackling post-Trump America through a story about vigilante justice, McDonagh polarized viewers into two camps—those who thought the filmmaker landed body blows against social and political taboos, and those who perceived his jabs as those of a cheap-shot artist. Writing in The New York Times, Wesley Morris likened the film to “a set of postcards from a Martian lured to America by a cable news ticker and by rumors of how easily flattered and provoked we are.” What can’t be debated is that the climactic decision to more or less redeem Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell)— a racist, abusive small-town police officer—by having him team up with Frances McDormand’s livid ACAB heroine was a capital-C Choice; a byproduct of McDonagh’s stubborn refusal to conflate depiction with endorsement.
In light of Three Billboards’ withering pop-cultural backlash—which McDonagh apparently took to heart—Banshees’ return to the Emerald Isle could be seen as a retreat or, at least, a journey back to the primal scene. “It isn’t really a return to anything,” McDonagh, who was born in London, snarked to IndieWire. “I guess because I’m sort of anti-nationalistic, it’s just a weird thing to have to define.” The script was developed out of an unfinished play meant to complete a trilogy of Irish-themed plays, along with the previously produced works The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. As much as McDonagh is dealing with universal themes—loneliness, despair, forgiveness—he’s also mining rich, deeply buried veins of Irish humor and mythology. In Irish folklore, a banshee is a spirit who heralds the death of a loved one by wailing and weeping, and Colm’s decision to name his latest violin composition in their honor suggests a man with mortality on his mind. (In addition to its vintage collection of drunkards and eccentrics, the village actually includes a banshee-like figure, an older woman that wanders the mountain roads at night, and whom even gentle Pádraic gives a wide berth.)
It’s a banshee-like melancholy, as opposed to simple misanthropy, that drives Colm deeper into himself as he strives to create something worthwhile while he still can, and Gleeson inhabits the character’s sadness with a heavy spirit. It’s a hard-edged, unsentimental performance, and—as in In Bruges—it gives Farrell plenty to work with in counterpoint. Whether throwing downcast macho poses in Miami Vice or hamming it up beneath latex in The Batman, Farrell’s most effective performances are the ones where he’s repressing (or mutating) his natural, roguish charm. The key to his career-best acting here as Pádraic (which earned him the prestigious Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival) is that he’s found a way to make kindness itself seem mindless and enervating—a quality synonymous with mediocrity. There’s a hint that one of Colm’s motives for freezing Pádraic out is to motivate him to stop wasting his own life as well, which is where Farrell’s almost obstinate decency starts becoming annoying; like the pet donkey he dotes on it’s in his nature to be loyal, and his inability to take a hint in this case has consequences for the people around him.
As long as it’s focused on its central, one-sided feud, The Banshees of Inisherin is bracingly funny, with a few bouts of verbal jousting that rival anything in In Bruges. (It’s probably the all-time world-record holder for usage of the word “feckin’” in a single film.) Whenever McDonagh pulls back to sketch the larger community, though, things start feeling thin. Condon, a wonderful actress who was underused in Three Billboards, is enjoyably feisty in her scenes with Farrell; however, but Siobhán’s really just there as a sounding board for her brother’s emotions. As for the twentysomething village-idiot Dominic, played by Barry Keoghan, he’s an example of McDonagh’s most cynical dramatic instincts—a character styled for the majority of the film as a walking punchline, before being transformed into a locus of pathos. This sentimental pushiness is the flip side to McDonagh’s scintillating cynicism. And, as talented as Keoghan is, it’s hard to enjoy his work when his role in the proceedings is so mechanical.
Dominic’s fate as the lone total innocent on display provides The Banshees of Inisherin with one of two carefully engineered climaxes, and it’s as predictable and phony as the second one is earned and sublime. As in Three Billboards, McDonagh isn’t above lighting a literal inferno to set his actors up for their verbal pyrotechnics, and the conversation that concludes the film takes place against a backdrop singed and ashen. In it, Farrell and Gleeson achieve the kind of natural, casual rhythm that makes even dialogue as stylized as McDonagh’s seem as if it’s being tossed off the tops of their heads; the intentness of their acting—the way we can sense both men listening to one another, instead of simply waiting to speak—is genuinely transfixing. Sometimes, when McDonagh’s characters fly off the handle, it’s a sign that he doesn’t really have much to say—a skilled wordsmith’s version of overcompensating. At the end of The Banshees of Inisherin, though, what’s left unsaid—and, just as importantly, how it’s left unsaid—is as eloquent as it gets.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.