As the sun sets, one bird hops in the direction of another, which edges away. The bird continues its progress, until it's right up against the other. There’s an irritated flapping of wings, and the retreating bird flies away. There are any number of cutaways to nature—dogs, horses, donkeys, sky, sea, fields—in The Banshees of Inisherin. But this one seems deliberately chosen as a mirror of the central conflict: one advances, the other retreats.
On an unchanging isle, a man tries to change. His name is Colm (Brendan Gleeson); he’s a violinist, a good one, though an amateur (he doesn’t seem to have a formal job). He lives alone with his dog. He drinks in the pub every evening with his friend, Pádraic (Colin Farrell)—or he used to. One day, when Pádraic goes to pick him up, he’s unresponsive. At the pub, he avoids him. When Pádraic persists, Colm tells him they’re no longer friends. “You didn’t say anything to me,” he explains flatly. “You didn’t do anything to me. I just don’t like you no more.”
Colm has his reasons. Pádraic is too dull for him, a man of generalities, no learning or ambition or particular skill. It’s a realization friends sometimes come to; usually it happens earlier in life, an awkward but natural consequence of people discovering themselves. Colm, quite reasonably, assumes his friend will understand he’s outgrown him and move on. But Pádraic keeps coming back, unwilling to accept his friend’s rebuffs.
You can see why Pádraic won’t back off. He can’t afford to be prideful—he really doesn’t have anything to anchor him in life besides the friendship (when Colm breaks up with him, he tries to respond but after a few seconds of mute struggle can only come up with, “You do like me”—a wonderful bit of acting by Farrell). He lives with his sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon), the only completely normal person on the isle. His only companion is Jenny, a little donkey he dotes on. He doesn’t seem to have a job either.
Although Pádraic is like a jilted lover who won’t quit, it’s Colm who threatens self-harm, saying he'll cut his own fingers off if he isn't left alone. No one’s right in the head here, from the relentless Pádraic and the clearly depressed Colm (“How’s the despair?” the priest asks during confession) to young Dominic (Barry Keoghan), whose rantings usually have a kernel of uncomfortable truth.
Martin McDonagh had earlier directed Farrell and Gleeson in the corrosive assassin comedy In Bruges. This is a more contemplative film, and, in its simplicity, more emotionally bruising. The logline is the whole film: everything is an outcome of that seemingly inconsequential decision. Pádraic has nothing to offer except his niceness. Colm, with his newfound clarity, rejects this as transient, using his own example as someone who, in Pádraic’s words, used to be nice and no longer was. As Pádraic is led away, drunk, Colm mutters, “That’s the most interesting he’s ever been.” Somehow, this has become a cycle from which neither man can extricate himself.
Playing a gentle fool with no stop button, Farrell is more touching than he's ever been. He’s particularly good at indicating the slow workings of Pádraic’s mind, the arguments he’d like to make if only he could frame them (so much of the writing in the film is about the gaps between thoughts). He smiles easily at the start of the film, then nervously, and eventually without conviction, in false hope. When he’s punched twice, it’s like a regular person getting hit: no shaking it off, just utter devastation. The tenderness of Farrell’s performance is contrasted with the gruff existential honesty of Gleeson’s Colm—it’s difficult not to feel for Pádraic even when his overtures could cause physical harm.
“Well, there goes that dream.” This line, an immaculate reading by Keoghan, said after Siobhán kindly rebuffs Dominic’s halting proposal, seems to sum up all the interconnected eddies of disappointment that make up The Banshees of Inisherin. Some will despair at the film’s despair, but the darkness isn’t a put-on (this is, after all, Ireland in 1923, with the Civil War a pronounced offscreen presence). And it’s leavened by moments of grace and lightness. Colm slow-dancing with his dog. Pádraic saying, “I am not putting me donkey outside when I’m sad, okay?” The mix of exhilaration, relief and worry on Siobhán’s face as she regards the isle from sea. The hard natural light filtering through windows and open doors, falling on worn faces. “Some things there’s no moving on from,” Pádraic says. “And I think that’s a good thing.” The Banshees of Inisherin makes a solitary breakup seem as vast and inevitable as the ocean.