Inisherin lies just beyond the reach of the mainland. Inside a sandy beach the land divides according to stone walls erected by the residents and numerous natural fissures so it seems miraculous the rock holds together at all. Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) walks this remote island for a daily pint at the pub with his best friend – and perhaps only friend, save an adorable mini-donkey named Jenny. Today he discovers that Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) wants nothing to do with him. Are they rowing? No, Colm simply doesn’t like Pádraic anymore. It takes several scenes to pry more details from stoic Irish lips, but as suggested by the name McDonagh on the poster, things escalate.
The volleys – including a particularly insane bit of sabotage that Gleeson sells as both mythic and mundane – hit unintended targets. The year is 1923 and the film draws parallels between the men’s row and the Irish Civil War raging just out of influence of Inisherin. The sound of artillery fire reaches the island, but the residents don’t have a strong grasp on the cause of the conflict, only a sense of relief that they’re having it out on the other side of the water. Pádraic and Colm’s confrontation similarly takes shape out of slights and self-destruction, until fighting only seems natural even if it never feels logical.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh reunites his In Bruges leads Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson and though their dynamic couldn’t be more different, it’s exciting to see them share the screen again and in a sharper movie that’s served by darkness rather than the other way around. Farrell’s hilarious and heartbreaking performance continues to points to what an emotional and versatile actor he can be in the right roles. Pádraic’s simple neediness is not so different from Colm’s grand designs, he just doesn’t have his lid on as tight. He’s vaguely aware of and tortured by his classification on the island as “dull,” which only Colm has the nerve to confirm to his face. Colm, for his part, feels the years wasting while chatting over pints and wants to devote his life to music. Everybody remembers songs left behind, he insists, nobody remembers niceness.
There’s a pall of depression over everyone on Inisherin, from the two leads through Pádraic’s caring sister Siobhán (a magnificent Kerry Condon) and the squirmy youth Dominic (Barry Keoghan). But the movie is hearty, not heavy, and McDonagh’s writing remains as light and darkly hilarious as ever. Like Farrell, he’s served well by a return to his native shores after bringing cleverness but a tin ear for location to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. With the small cast of Inisherin denizens McDonagh again plays with small town dynamics and gives them the frost of Irish social mores and the musicality of their “fecking” brogue.
Leaning into the lamplit dimness at night and the endless skies of the days, you can never feel safe from any amount of nastiness in McDonagh’s care. Yet it’s easily among the funniest recent films (in an admittedly not exactly riotous year). And even if you can spot a couple of the dramatic twists down the winding road, not an ounce of wallop gets wasted in the hands of these pros.