I know that plot is important, but sometimes art’s atmosphere or style draws me in and leaves a bigger impression.
I vividly remember the day in my teens when I discovered the Titus Groan / Gormenghast novels and was hooked from the first few minutes, simply because the author was also an artist and conveyed such a visually striking world through his words. The plot was irrelevant, not least because the eponymous Titus Groan was only seven by the end of the first book in the trilogy.
Film can similarly succeed through style, but also doing the show-not-tell. The excellent The Banshees of Inisherin does both. You could pretty much cover the plot in two lines, but it is thoroughly Irish (a pitch for this would never be considered in Hollywood) and makes a bold statement about relationships, stubborn pride and loneliness that burns in the soul long after the credits roll.
The heart of the film is a friendship between two men who live on the fictional island of Inisherin, off the Irish mainland, in 1923. It opens to a Bulgarian à capella folk song – surprising for such a very Irish movie, but still sharing an atmospheric tone with it. It plays as Pádraic (Colin Farrell) walks down to the shoreline home of his life-long friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) to meet him on the way to the pub, as is their habit. But when he reaches the house, Colm blanks him, ignores his knocks on the window and just sits there smoking.
It takes a while for Pádraic to find out why his friend suddenly no longer wants to talk to him, and he struggles to accept the verdict: it’s because he’s dull.
Colm accused him of being boring the last time they spoke and wasting time that he could have spent doing something better (“The other night, two hours you spent talking to me about the things you found in your little donkey’s shite that day”). Now Colm wants to use his time to write music – after all, he argues, we don’t remember people from the past for being nice, but we remember the likes of Mozart for their work.
Pádraic struggles to accept this – the island is sparsely populated and this makes a huge hole in his social life – but his reluctance to take Colm at his word only drives a huge wedge between the two.
Things escalate dramatically, but there’ll be no spoilers here.
Writer/director Martin (Three Billboards) McDonagh has judged this beautifully. The script is surprisingly tight for such a low-key story, every line having a reason. The black-rimmed humour is distinctively Irish and often brought out in how life must be when living in such a small community, whether by having a donkey living in the house or by the characters – from the cape-clad crone Mrs McCormick (people hide behind walls to avoid her) to village simpleton Dominic (a pitch-perfect performance from Barry Keoghan, but they all are) to the gossipy shopkeeper, who opens the post before passing it on and treats news as currency.
(It also had me wondering whether the pub landlord Jonjo was deliberately given a moustache to match one of the drinkers at the bar, because one repeats everything the other says).
Affection still breaks through the gaps in this fractured friendship. When Pádraic is punched to the ground by the abusive policeman, Colm puts him back on his cart and silently helps him on his way. When Pádraic damages Colm’s property, he protects his dog.
There is a huge ‘What if?’ underlying the story. What if the pair made up? How much happier would they be if they found a way to resume the friendship? There is a civil war ending on the mainland and we hear at the end how pleasant life can be over there with hostilities ceasing. The parallel cannot be accidental.
There is also a spiritual ‘What if?’ Many of the islanders go to church on Sunday, but it makes little difference to their relationships. The priest asks Colm at confession how he is coping with his despair, and this existential dread is absolutely what drives his motivation (Pádraic’s dullness is merely the excuse). But Colm brushes the question off to his own detriment. Pádraic walks out of church to harm his friend. Forgiveness and love would end the situation where the two insist on hanging themselves by their own petards.
So the film leaves you wondering about how resolution could happen, what should have happened long before, and feeling the melancholy that accompanies this breakdown in relationship. There is nothing didactic about the script, but there doesn’t need to be, because it shows, rather than tells – and does it so eloquently.