The Banshees of Inisherin review: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson shine in a film that uses comedy as a hammer

Padraic is crushed – Farrell’s cycle of facial expressions as he processes this is like Swan Lake for eyebrows – and he basically refuses to accept it, starting what at first appears to be a darkly comic allegorical feud as the two bicker men reproduces the continent’s conflict in miniature. The front door of Colm’s cottage is even painted red, while Padraig’s is green: a nod to the impending split in Irish republicanism following the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s.

But as those who have seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will know, McDonagh does not use simple parables. The farcical argument turns strange and sinister: a rusty pair of scissors takes center stage, and the very idea that it provides a clear moral lesson becomes more slippery by the minute.

It seems increasingly that this duo is not acting entirely of their own volition here, but rather driven by ancient unseen mechanisms, like huge cogs sunk into the peat. Meanwhile, the colorful supporting characters take on the appearance of folkloric figures: Kerry Condon is superb as Padraic’s shrewd, happily unmarried sister Siobhan, while Sheila Fleeton delights as a fussy old woman who lives alone by the lake and whose true role in island life is one of the film’s most troubling questions. And Barry Keoghan brings a compellingly twitchy pathos to Dominic, the local glum or village idiot whose early discovery of a strange long rod leads to a brilliantly calculated, blood-curdling payoff.

Keoghan’s character often serves as comic relief. But he is also an extremely sad figure, physically and sexually abused by his alcoholic father Pydar (Gary Lydon), who is worryingly also appointed as a village policeman. Here and elsewhere, McDonagh wields comedy like a sledgehammer, smashing through difficult subjects to reveal the slime within.

Farrell is in clearly outstanding form as soon as Padraic makes his first appearance, climbing out of the busy harbor under the rainbow, the very picture of jovial Irish masculinity. (One small but valuable detail: Inisherin feels like a busy community, with its own ingrained rhythms and routine.) Meanwhile, the mastery of Gleeson’s performance reveals itself slowly and surely. Colm, unlike his former friend, is difficult to read by nature, and even the rafters of his cottage sway with exotic theatrical masks.

The treasure trove of dangling trifles is as wide as the horizons are in this place: Colm knows it well and Padraic has no idea, and it’s hard to say which of these positions is ultimately more tragic. This is an often funny film whose comic dialogue is dazzlingly designed and executed. But McDonagh leaves fate itself with the last bone-shaking black laugh.

Certified, 109 min. Played at the Venice Film Festival. In UK cinemas from Friday 21 October

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