Scathing fable "The Banshees of Inisherin" is a feckin' good yarn

The Banshees of Inisherin

Starring Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, David Pearse and Sheila Flitton. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. 114 minutes. STC

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 (out of 4)

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

The good folk of Inisherin, an island off the coast of Ireland, generally keep their collars buttoned to the top and their tweed garments well layered.

It’s to ward off the perpetual chill of a place that is blessed with scenery but not reliably good weather.

The one chill islanders don’t have to bother with involves social relations. Everybody gets along with everybody else and, even if they don’t, they still talk civilly to one another. How could they not, with statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary smiling at them beatifically at seemingly every turn?

Until the day comes when dairyman Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a man so carefree he often doesn’t know what month it is, calls upon his lifelong friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson), a fiddle player and aspiring composer. It’s time for their daily afternoon pint of Guinness down at the pub.

But on this day, Colm is having none of it and apparently never again any of it: “I don’t like you anymore,” he flatly declares to an astonished and hurt Pádraic.

Therein turns the tale of “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a film by Oscar-winning writer/director Martin McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) that you could call a comedy if you have an extremely dark sense of humour and a keen appreciation of fatalism, as the Irish certainly do.

Whatever you choose to call it, the film is often very funny. It’s a f---in’ good yarn, to use a word that rhymes with “pecking,” an adjective oft heard in Inisherin.

The movie arrives at the Toronto International Film Festival with garlands of Best Actor (Farrell) and Best Screenplay from the Venice International Film Festival. Judging from the gales of laughter at the screening I attended, it stands a good chance of nabbing the TIFF audience award this weekend.

McDonagh often employs absurd extremes to tell his stories — recall the accusatory billboards of his previous film — and here’s the strangest one yet: Colm tells Pádraic that if he doesn’t leave him be, he will respond by chopping off one of his own fingers or thumbs, all 10 digits if need be. It’s all the more terrible a deed for a fiddler player to threaten.

And for what mad reason? Colm has decided that he can no longer abide Pádraic’s endless nattering, which includes a two-hour dissertation on his wee horse’s anal excretions. In a word, Colm finds Pádraic dull and, as he nears his retirement years, he wants to spend the rest of his days “thinking and composing,” not engaging in small talk. The year is 1923, which makes it almost a century ahead of our modern phenomenon of “ghosting” a friend.

Pádraic certainly can talk — he’s “kissed the Blarney Stone,” as the Irish would say — but everyone agrees it’s unfair to single him out as being dull.

“You’re all f---ing boring!” Pádraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) tells Colm and she would know. She’s contemplating leaving the island because there’s no man there she’d happily marry. This especially includes the local fool Dominic (Barry Keoghan), who has the habit of saying what people are only thinking.

It’s seems obvious that Colm is suffering from a serious case of depression — he’s confessed feelings of despair to his local priest — but there’s apparently no therapist available to help him. There’s also no doubting the seriousness of his finger-chopping threat, which you know won’t stop there if you’re familiar with how far McDonagh takes things, especially when he pairs Farrell and Gleeson, as he previously did for “In Bruges.”

I should mention that Inisherin is a fictional place and the movie is a fairy tale, albeit a very grim one, lit more like dire Irish drama than green-and-sunny shamrock comedy.

Reality intrudes with the sound of gunfire across the water on the mainland, where a sectarian civil war ensues, something that has long shattered the peace of the Emerald Isle. Indeed, if there’s any message to the film, it’s the caution that small hurts and insults left unsettled can lead to bigger and more dangerous battles, as those guns across the water attest.

And what of the banshees of the title, a reference to the female spirits of Irish folklore who wail to portend a family death? It’s explained in due course, along with the observation that if Inisherin in fact has any banshees, they “sit and observe, amused.” And so do we.

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(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)