Martin McDonagh’s new film is a macabre black comedy of toxic male pride and wounded male feelings, a shaggy-dog story of wretchedness and a dance of death between aggression and self-harm, set on an imaginary island called Inisherin off the Irish coast. It’s happening in 1923 during the civil war; the additional symbolic acrimony is offered to us on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
As with so many of McDonagh’s works, the glint of the unburied hatchet is all too visible in the murk, and the setting is a stylised and ironised Irish rural scene not so very far from John Millington Synge. Mutilation is a familiar motif. There are plenty of genuine laughs in this movie, but each of them seems to dovetail into a banshee-wail of pain.
McDonagh reunites Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the co-stars from his 2008 film In Bruges about two hitmen marooned in that exquisite European city. Farrell plays Padraic, a dairyman who lives with his unmarried sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) in a modest cottage, with their cows and their adored donkey.
Every day promptly at two o’clock, goofy, good-natured Padraic calls for the guy he considers his best friend in all the world, so that they can go to the pub together. This is Colm (Brendan Gleeson), a more reserved, thoughtful man who plays the fiddle and is working on an air he is composing, entitled The Banshees of Inisherin. The other figures on the island include Dominic Kearney (a tremendous performance from Barry Keoghan), the idiot son of the island’s obnoxious police officer Peadar Kearney (Gary Lydon).
The latter is thrilled to be offered a fee of six shillings to supervise an execution on the mainland and likes to drink and masturbate himself into a naked stupor of an evening, at which point Dominic will sneak in to his front room and steal his booze to share with Padraic, muttering about his father and the “tiny brown cock on him”. Dominic is also poignantly in love with Siobhan.
One day, a terrible thing happens: Colm simply decides he doesn’t want to be friends with Padraic any more. Poor Padraic is stunned. Colm wants to sit far away from Padraic in the pub and never exchange another word with him as long as he lives. The reason, haughtily offered, is that Colm realises that he is getting on in years, death is approaching, so he wants to concentrate on his musical work and doesn’t want to waste any more time talking to daft, annoying, empty-headed Padraic. Upset and then angry, Padraic insists on talking to Colm, who angrily declares he will cut off one of his own fingers for each unwelcome attempt at conversation.
Perhaps the most pertinent comment on Colm’s rejection of Padraic comes from Dominic, who muses: “What is he, 12?” Breaking off romantic associations, in the divorce court or otherwise, is what adults do all the time. But ordinary friendships? Well, little kids at school will flounce out of those but adults are expected to maintain friendships or somehow let them fade tactfully away. But how do you end a friendship which may in fact be more important than a marriage? Men are ill-equipped emotionally to deal with it.
Of course, as Colm confesses to the priest (David Pearse), all this perhaps has nothing to do with Padraic: it is just a symptom of his own depression, something of which Padraic is dimly aware. But this is no consolation; as of now, Padraic has his own depression. He is now made to feel the beta-male loser in this zero-sum game of friendship, and in all probability Colm thought he was an irritating chump all along. It’s as if Vladimir turned to Estragon in the middle of Beckett’s play and declared that whether or not Godot turns up, they are now mortal enemies. As a study of male loneliness and swallowed anger it is weirdly compelling and often very funny.
• The Banshees of Inisherin screened at the Venice film festival and is released on 21 October in cinemas.