Now streaming–The Banshees of Inisherin, nominated for nine Oscars

Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s a week from the annual Academy Awards and two weeks from St. Patrick’s Day, so that’s good enough reason alone to give The Banshees of Inisherin a try.  The Banshees of Inisherin is one of the rare 21st century films that deserves its Oscar recognition, a simple story on its face that weaves in a variety of important themes.  It has much in common with Oscar winners of the past, like Jane Campion’s The Piano and John Ford’s The Quiet Man and The Grapes of Wrath, as well as David Lynch’s The Straight Story, Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of Of Mice and Men and Ron Howard’s Far and Away.  It’s at its best when it balances it’s quirky characters with humor, with great acting to match, and the year’s best music and cinematography, although the cinematography is the one place the film was snubbed by Oscar.  It’s now streaming on HBO Max, Vudu, Prime Video, and other outlets.

In 1952 Winton Hoch and Archie Stout captured the beauty of Ireland in Ford’s The Quiet Man, but Ben Davis does it as well here, with camera angles and shots that feel like we’re watching a Ford production again.  Davis is known for his work on more commercial films, like Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, and Kick-Ass, which could be why the Academy skipped him this round.  He’s definitely a filmmaker to keep watching.

Oscar winner Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) wrote and directed The Banshees of InisherinIts plot is spectacularly thin:  In the rural hamlet of Inisherin–too far across the sea from a civil war between Irish factions for anyone to be bothered with–an arguably dull fellow named Pádraic Súilleabháin, played by Colin Farrell, learns his only male companion and pub mate in town no longer wants to associate with him.  For no apparent reason.  That man is ColmSonnyLarry, played by Brendan Gleeson.  Why Colm refuses to be friends with Pádraic, and the ultimately horrible ramifications of this sudden decision, is the focus of activity for the few days in the lives of these fictional Irish folk back in April 1923–a hundred years ago.

The themes sneak in like in any epic human story.  The tale plays out like a prequel to David Lynch’s The Straight Story.  Actions have consequences.  Some folks do well keeping to the same pattern for the entirety of their lives.  Maybe something has gotten lost in this small town in the middle of nowhere.  Is ColmSonnyLarry having his version of a midlife crisis?  Does he have any obligation for the members of the community around him?  How does a community fare when there are not enough individuals to play all the important roles?  And what if key community leaders fail to do their parts?  Only on its surface is this a story about “being nice” to each other.  Likewise, the “banshees” of the title is not just about naming a song.

Pádraic lives with his sister Siobhán Súilleabháin, played by Kerry Condon (well known as the voice of the computer Friday throughout the MCU movies, as well as for Better Call Saul).  Siobhán reflects the woman’s perspective out in the middle of nowhere.  She has no prospects, and only her care for her brother keeps her there, until she gets an offer on the mainland.  The options to these people are unveiled throughout the first part of the film: You can continue every day the same.  In the news we hear someone chose harm to himself, another harm to others.  Many seem to take out their frustrations on select people around them.  ColmSonnyLarry comes up with his own, very odd means of escape.  His only refuge is his music–he composes and plays his violin at the pub, and is fixated on creating something that will survive him and the townspeople.

If ColmSonnyLarry is the wiser of the pair of him and Pádraic, then when Colm parts ways Pádraic is left with a younger version of himself, a local policeman’s son named Dominic Kearney, played by Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk).  The mirroring of that pair to the other pair explains why Pádraic wants life back as it was.  At the same time Dominic has his own problems with life in Inisherin.  One might expect the well-being of the townspeople to be in the hands of the local priest, but that doesn’t seem to be going as designed either, and that may be a key component of what’s wrong with the town.

Pádraic’s relationship with his donkey and the other animals is a high point of the story but also the low point of the script when an act results in the death of one of the animals.  An over-arching element is Pádraic’s view–and maybe even ultimately ColmSonnyLarry’s realization–that an animal’s life is as important as a human’s.  The film is Farrell’s best work of his career.

Colm’s music allows the music score to take center stage, and the music serves the story as it did in Jane Campion’s The Piano.  Carter Burwell (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Carol, True Grit, No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Rob Roy, The Spanish Prisoner, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is nominated for the Oscar, and he would be a worthy winner–this is his third nomination.

Watch for interesting performances by Sheila Flitton as Mrs. McCormack, a roving old woman in black, and Bríd Ní Neachtain as the nosy Mrs. O’Riordan.

If the constellations align right, The Banshees of Inisherin could sweep the awards this year.  Each of Farrell, Gleeson, Condon, and Keoghan are up for acting awards, and McDonagh is up for direction, film, and his screenplay.  It already won four of its ten nominations at the BAFTAs.  It’s not a perfect film, but compared to the alternatives it’s a good contender, and regardless of its competition it’s worthy of the company of many past big Oscar winners.  It’s certainly superior, and a better historical/costume drama than Gangs of New York, The Irishman, Mank, The Age of Innocence, No Country for Old Men, and many other past winners.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s a major entry in films about the Irish.  Watch The Banshees of Inisherin, now streaming on HBO Max, Vudu, Prime Video, and Hulu.

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