'The Banshees of Inisherin' review: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson bring friendly fire to dark comedy

Brian Truitt

Most folks can relate to the emotional doom spiral of a romantic interest suddenly ghosting them out of nowhere. But there’s nothing worse than the thought of a trusted best friend telling you to take a hike and wanting to cut off all contact.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s dazzling dark comedy “The Banshees of Inisherin” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters and streaming on HBO Max) takes this universal conceit, set on a remote Irish island in 1923, to hilarious and extraordinarily bleak places. The “In Bruges” duo of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson reteam to give understandable humanity to two friends with a permanent wedge between them. And Farrell, especially, offers one of his most nuanced performances as a nice guy driven to extremes because of forced loneliness.

Happy-go-lucky Pádraic (Farrell) goes about his day like any other on the fictional isle of Inisherin – caring for his miniature donkey and other animals, bantering with his sister Siobhán (a scrappy Kerry Condon) and heading to the local pub for a midafternoon pint with his buddy, Colm (Gleeson). Colm, an older man, tells him to sit somewhere else, and eventually takes his drink outside. Pádraic wants to know what’s up with the rebuff, and he’s not excited by Colm’s answer: “I just don’t like you anymore.”

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Colm (Brendan Gleeson, left) warns his former BFF Pádraic (Colin Farrell) to stay away from him in the dark comedy "The Banshees of Inisherin."

Colm explains that he no longer has time for Pádraic’s “aimless chatting” and just wants his former BFF to leave him alone so he can play his fiddle and live his life in peace and quiet. Spurred on by this suddenly fractured friendship – and the fact that everyone’s thrown, including Siobhán and Dominic (the delightfully excitable Barry Keoghan), the locale's capricious voice of reason – Pádraic keeps bugging Colm to find out what he can do to fix things. This bothers Colm even more, to the point where he threatens to start cutting off his fingers if Pádraic won’t leave him alone. Both men are on the stubborn side, and take this feud to unfortunate, violent lengths.

McDonagh, who splendidly captured another community in turmoil with 2017's best-picture nominee “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” insightfully sets “Banshees” during the Irish Civil War: Residents of Inisherin frequently see skirmishes occurring on the mainland, while a more intimate battle escalates around them. Even though they live on a glorious and expansive landscape, these people are all up in each other’s business constantly, so everybody has a stake in Pádraic and Colm’s uncivil row, from Dominic’s abusive cop dad (Gary Lydon) to a witchy elderly woman (Sheila Flitton) who may or may not be a banshee herself. (For those unfamiliar, a banshee is a female spirit in Irish folklore who foretells death.) 

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When he loses a close buddy, Pádraic (Colin Farrell, left) confides in young oddball Dominic (Barry Keoghan) in "The Banshees of Inisherin."

There is a certain heightened reality to the goings-on that belies how grounded the film is in its themes of isolation, desperation and mortality. Its characters pick sides, but the film doesn’t, and while it’s told mostly from Pádraic’s brokenhearted perspective, you clearly see each man’s point of view.

Pádraic is gobsmacked to lose his closest friend; Colm yearns to leave some sort of artistic legacy; and others, like Siobhán – who’s by far the smartest person on the island – are left to choose between picking up the pieces or looking out for themselves.

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Siobhán (Kerry Condon) is caught between the love for her brother and looking out for herself in "The Banshees of Inisherin."

Condon and Keoghan give “Banshees” extra personality and verve, while Farrell and Gleeson are the two halves of its beating heart. It’s hard to hate Colm because of the world-weary depth Gleeson lends him – plus, he has a ridiculously cute dog that plays a vital role in the film’s memorable endgame. And Farrell brings a lovable underdog nature to Pádraic that doesn’t let him off the hook for his questionable actions.

“Banshees” masterfully explores the complications of a platonic friendship – when old pals stop being polite and start getting real – with a sailor’s mouth and a mix of hilarity and tragedy in one wail of a tale.