We live in the age of the dramedy. While this subgenre has existed since the golden age of cinema, gaining traction in the mid-2010s with the indie renaissance, it wasn’t until 2017’s “Ladybird” that the dramedy was rocketed through the stratosphere, past orbit and into the wide reaches of space. “The Favorite,” “Red Rocket,” “Jojo Rabbit” and other incredible films have only cemented the power of this subgenre. This predictably resulted in everyone and their mothers frothing at the mouth, ready to create the next great indie dramedy.
When “The Banshees of Inisherin” garnered festival buzz earlier this year after its premiere at Venice Film Festival, the average joe could be forgiven for thinking that this was just another try for the crown. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, this is a dramedy, but it is also a Martin McDonagh movie. The screenwriter has become a seasoned veteran in the world of the dramatic comedy film: He wrote and directed the beloved “In Bruges” in 2008 and, in 2017, created what is debatably the peak of the genre — “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” When McDonagh releases a dramedy, people pay attention. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is a modern masterpiece in storytelling, theme and character, and maintains levity through outrageous comedy in all the right places.
Set on the fictional island of Inisherin, just off the Irish coast, Pádraic (Colin Farrell, “The Batman”) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson, “Paddington 2”) have been the best of friends for years, spending each day talking at the local pub. That is until Colm proclaims to Pádraic that he is sick of Pádraic’s dullness and never wants to speak to him again.
What begins as a benign scuffle quickly becomes an intense conflict that captivates all inhabitants of their little isle. Of course, this originally silly scuffle would fall flat if not for the strength of the film’s characters. Farrell delivers his greatest performance yet as Pádraic, a man who isn’t smart, interesting or even well-liked, but instead is just a good, nice man. He exists in contrast to Gleeson’s Colm, a musically talented yet bitter man who is at all times fully aware of his diminishing time on this earth.
Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon, “Bad Samaritan”) is the island’s smartest inhabitant and serves as the only thing tethering Pádraic to Earth while he spirals out of control. But as time progresses, Siobhán herself begins to question her own role in life. The teenage Dominic (Barry Keoghan, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) is perhaps the only person dumber than Pádraic on the whole island and provides some critical laughs in otherwise serious moments. We watch these characters develop and change over time, sometimes wordlessly, shifting to adapt to their new understanding of the environment around them. The strength of McDonagh’s writing, helped by possibly the best ensemble performance in decades, creates a number of fully fleshed-out characters that give the film its humanity.
Before I get ahead of myself, I think it’s important to mention the shamrock in the room. This movie is Irish. Like, very Irish. Some would say it is “fecking” Irish. The all-Irish cast let their accents shine through, unburdened by the worry that some audiences might find it off-putting. Dialects are used, vocabulary is shifted and every other sentence ends with “like” or “so, like.” Maybe it’s just my silly American brain, but the Irish vocalizations elevate the already hilarious comedy in the movie. One-liners and sly remarks that may have elicited a giggle in a Midwestern accent pull belly laughs out of me when repeated in an Irish one.
But McDonagh, the son of Irish immigrants, doesn’t simply use Ireland as a strange auto-“orientalist” comedy routine; the setting enhances all aspects of the film. The enclosed nature of the island ensures that all information pertaining to Colm and Pádraic’s conflict spreads rapidly throughout its community, acting as a Plato-esque cave wall, forcing echoes of the duo’s own actions to hit them over and over again. When Pádraic has an explosive outburst at the pub one night, that act is repeatedly reflected at him, both verbally, through accosting, and physically, through beatings. That cave wall does something else too: It traps them. At any moment they could get on a boat and go to the mainland, but they’re mentally unable to do so. Too much of their already middle-aged lives are on this island. To leave now, after the time they have wasted there, would simply prove their deep-seated fears to be true.
The geography of the island tells the same story. Its lush, green fields and cool streams are enchantingly calm at first, but as time goes on, its mind-bending dullness reveals itself. The island is surrounded on nearly all sides by tall, sharp and coarse cliffs, linking itself to the mental barrier of leaving. Although Inisherin is part of the Emerald Isle, it may be more apt to place it in the Navy Archipelago. Green grass may cover the landscape, but the stormy gray skies and the rushing navy blue sea slowly surrounds and suffocates the characters, to the point where it’s hard to tell where the green even was. The only things available to take your mind off the island are as Irish as Guinness: the pub and the church. But those places, too, reveal themselves as echoic caverns within that original large cave, barring the residents from escaping their own echoic dullness. At the movie’s outset, McDonagh uses the pub to display the conflict (both thematic and literal) between Colm and Pádriac. Colm drinks at an inside booth and Pádriac at a table outside a window. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear there is no “inside” of the pub. It’s all Inisherin.
Much ado will be made about this movie’s connection to the “obsessed artist” trope. Respectfully, that comparison is invalid. This movie asks a different question: What is it we leave behind? What will be left after the waves wash our streets clean and we’ve moved to the great pub in the sky? This question consumes Colm and rules everything in his life. To Pádraic, the question is a silly one. What does it matter who remembers him in one hundred years if his sister loves him today? This conflict that Pádraic probably isn’t even conscious of is something that haunts the film, silently screaming over every character, day and night. But that question isn’t the titular banshee. Nor is the song that Colm wrote, titled the same name as the film. The banshees are those that respond to the question posed by the film. The banshees are those screaming, loudly or silently, back at the question, looking for some type of answer or appeasement or anything. But there’s no response. And maybe there never will be.
Daily Arts Contributor Rami Mahdi can be reached at email@example.com.