Slowboy of the Western World
The Banshees of Inisherin is a pint of bitter with some laughs along the way
[Coming along with my annual review of Best Picture Oscar nominees! So far I’ve done Everything Everywhere All At Once, Avatar: The Way of Water, All Quiet on the Western Front, Women Talking, Elvis – and now, this:]
I like to think my love of the Irish comic tradition is deeper than that of folks whose familiarity with it is limited to Barry Fitzgerald clown roles in old movies, but I really can’t be sure. For one thing, Fitzgerald is great and you can get a lot of it just from him; for another, as much as I’ve read of the primary 20th Century works (including Synge, Wilde, and Fiann O’Brien, author of the single funniest thing I’ve ever read), if I try to tell what’s Irish about it, as distinct from just funny, I come quickly to cliches which may be related to a Deeper Cultural Truth but not so’s you’d know. There’s the troublesome role of the Church, of course, which I even sort of have a handle on from my working-class Catholic upbringing, but what distinguishes a funny priest-ridden Irishman from, say, a funny priest-ridden Lithuanian? (Readers of Lithuanian literature are invited to respond.)
Maybe it’s just a certain pitch of mordant humor — as in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, when Hamm accosts his father, Nagg, who lives in a garbage can:
HAMM: Scoundrel! Why did you engender me?
NAGG: I didn’t know.
HAMM: What? What didn’t you know?
NAGG: That it’d be you.
Also gossip, sexual frustration, and poeticism that’s real poetry but also absurd (talking of Synge, I can’t imagine an American or a Brit coming up with Old Mahon’s nightmare of “rats as big as badgers sucking the life’s blood from the butt of my lug”).
In any event, if I can’t tell much else, I can tell when someone’s putting the Irish on, and Martin McDonagh certainly is with The Banshees of Inisherin. We’re way out west in Synge country, with endless low stone walls, turf ricks, fecks and shites, and whitewashed houses; it’s 1923, near the end of the Civil War, though that’s not tipped at the beginning so you might well imagine before you spot a calendar that it’s taking place today, in one of those rural redoubts where time moves slow.
Padraic’s a small farmer who has a lot of free time and enjoys a pint with his buddy Colm, a musician. But one day Colm rebuffs him and says he doesn’t want to be his friend anymore because Padraic, in his estimation, is “dull.” Colm’s not a wordy fella, but eventually he lets out that he’s working on music seriously, and he doesn’t want to fritter away any more of his time on the likes of Padraic.
Padraic, bless him, is that dull. When he protests that Colm is no longer “nice,” Colm counters that niceness doesn’t get you remembered, art does. Padraic says niceness does so get remembered, because he remembers his dead parents and they were nice. Colm: “Everyone, to a man, knows Mozart’s name.” Padraic: “Well I don’t, so there goes that theory.”
Nonetheless Colm finds time for pints and conversations with other residents, while Padraic seems to have for company mainly Dominic, the son of a local policeman/petty tyrant and what people then would call simple — he is excited by finding a stick with a hook at the end, obsessed with women, and intermittently barred from the pub for reasons we can guess. Padraic begins to morosely wonder whether folks think he’s simple, too. And he keeps trying to get Colm to be friends again.
We are drawn in and amused at first because the concerns seem so small. Even Dominic, when he hears of Colm’s attitude, asks, “What is he, twelve?” But McDonagh has bigger ideas, and here’s where things get sticky. I haven’t mentioned Padraic’s sister, Siobhan, with whom he lives. (They have separate beds in a small room they share. There’s no indication of any tension about this.) She reads books and sees through people. When Colm tells her Padraic is boring, she responds, “Ye’re all fecking boring, with your piddling grievances over nothing!” She asks Padraic at one point, “Do you never get lonely?” Padraic can’t relate to the question. (“What’s the matter with everybody, Jesus”). But the thought sticks with her.
There is also the war, of which we are reminded at intervals by gunfire on the mainland, and by Dominic’s father — as we learn, a particularly cruel and stupid man — mentioning with relish that he’ll be involved in a related execution: “The Free State lads are executing a couple of the IRA lads,” he says, then thinks: “Or is it the other way around?” Violence comes in by another way, too: Colm, exasperated by Padraic’s apparent inability to leave him alone, promises that each time his ex-friend bothers him he’ll cut off one of his own fingers. “Well, that won’t help your fecking music,” Siobhan tells Colm. “Aye,” Colm responds. “We’re getting somewhere now.”
Now, maybe I’m dull, but to me this seems more cryptic than suggestive, and as the violence escalates from there — I won’t describe it, but will say it’s a lot — I had a sense of the story going off track. I do believe McDonagh the writer was here ill-served by McDonagh the director. His handling of the settings, scenes, and segues are all very fine, but maybe a director who had not written the thing would have noticed that as the tone of the picture becomes increasingly grim, it moves at odds with what had seemed to be its method — almost as if we’d been misled to enjoy ourselves so much earlier. Maybe that was McDonagh’s intention, to catch us up short, to tell us we aren’t above it all as we thought we were, that it’s all really deadly serious. But to me it’s as if The Playboy of the Western World ended like Taxi Driver instead of as it does, with the grand joke of the premise blossoming into the sublime.
The unfortunate stylistic switch doesn’t harm the acting because the characters are solid from the start. Colin Farrell gets the comedy bonanza of a dim fella who nonetheless keeps cracking off brilliantly-written dialogue, and he doesn’t let it go to waste; but we also see the depths of his melancholy when the loss of Colm’s friendship becomes something he can’t talk his way around. Brendan Gleeson makes Colm one of those men who seem slightly pained even when they’re pleased, which along with his shambling bulk makes his absurd resolve even funnier. The pathos of Barry Keoghan’s Dominic sneaks up on you so gradually that you wonder how you missed it at the outset. And Kerry Condon’s Siobhan is almost her own movie: She shows a capacity for embitterment and shrewishness, a resolve to not let them overwhelm her, and the difficulty of putting herself beyond their reach. You keep noticing, in certain slants of light, that she’s not as young as she looks.
Craft stuff is prime all the way, but I especially liked Carter Burwell’s score. McDonagh reportedly told him to forget the Irish stuff and make it sound like a fairy tale but to my ear, along with a great feel for the flow of the drama, Burwell gets both. But like I said, maybe I just don’t know what Irish is.
I loved the movie, although Colm’s self-inflicted violence is plainly psychotic. I got the impression of a man so angry at himself for allowing ennui to trump his ambitions until most of his life had passed him by, he was lashing out AND lashing in. Barry Keoghan is a genius, and Kerry Condon takes what could have been the stereotypical “exasperated woman” role and finds every nuance in the script as well as some nuances the writer didn’t even put there.
And yeah, it’s VERY Irish (as am I on my father’s side of the family), both morose and fey.
Now that's an idea. A Flann O'Brien movie. I'd watch anyone who would give At Swim-Two-Birds a go.