“It feels like not two days of passing,” McDonagh said, shaking his head, on a recent fall day in New York while Farrell and Gleeson, sitting beside him, eagerly agree.
“It feels like we just went back in the room and said, ‘It’s going to be a good one, isn’t it?” says Gleeson.
The 2008 ‘In Bruges,’ which began the celebrated British-Irish playwright’s transition from stage to screen, was a memorable dark comedy of two hitmen holed up in the medieval Belgian city. For Farrell’s character, who has just accidentally shot a boy on his first job, Bruges is a purgatory. ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ is likewise set in a specific locale: the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. And a sense of existential doom is again palpable.
But the feud this time requires no guns and the rural 1920s backdrop is even more picturesque. After years of friendship and regular trips to the pub together, Colm Doherty (Gleeson) has decided that he just doesn’t like Padraic Suilleabhain (Farrell) anymore. This confounds Padraic, who persistently tries to reingratiate himself to Colm. Eventually, Colm decides to make his demand for peace gruesomely clear.
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“People go, ‘You can’t just make a film about a guy who doesn’t want to be friends with another guy,'” says Farrell. “Well, that’s how.”
‘The Banshees of Inisherin,’ which opens in select theaters Friday before expanding nationwide, is a story of friends falling out made by a trio with abiding affection for one another. McDonagh wrote it with Gleeson and Farrell in mind. He first sent the two actors a draft seven years ago. (“That was crap,” says McDonagh. “I loved it,” says Farrell.) He later returned to it, preserving only the first five pages and digging deeper into the pair’s relationship.
McDonagh, Gleeson and Farrell’s pleasure in each other’s company was easy to see when they convened at a hotel on the Upper West Side shortly after Gleeson’s skateboard-shredding ‘Saturday Night Live’ hosting stint. The three had just stepped away from individual interviews over Zoom. “Together again!” they exclaimed.
“From the start, there was a deep sense of kinship and an understanding of each other,” Farrell says. “In a strange way, I understand myself more through Martin and his mind and his heart and his work. And I understand myself more through my interactions with Brendan.”
“I think we all, basically, are romantics,” adds Gleeson. “We’re not blind, either. We know the other side of the coin.”
‘In Bruges’ was well-received at the time and launched McDonagh as a filmmaker. ( Roger Ebert wrote: “Every once in a while you find a film like this, that seems to happen as it goes along, driven by the peculiarities of the characters.”) But it also has only grown in stature over the years, and it remains a touchstone for all three. Farrell, who was then adjusting to the onset of fame, credits the film with reorienting his career.
“It meant a lot to me. I had genuinely lost sight of the fun and exploration and the journey of discovery that what we do for a living can be and should be. I was just going through the motions. It was at a stage of my life where there was a lot of change personally, and as a result of that professionally,” says Farrell. “The pilot light got ignited by ‘In Bruges.'”
‘Banshees’ preserves some of the ‘Bruges’ dynamic between Farrell and Gleeson. Gleeson again plays the more erudite of the two. Farrell is sweeter, less intelligent. There are other connections, too. It’s a throwaway line but Farrell begs Gleeson to go down to the pub in ‘In Bruges.’ Gleeson’s response: “No.”
From the start, their banter together had a natural rhythm. “An instantaneous mainlining into headquarters,” says Gleeson.
“I think part of it is – Martin has the line – that we’re an odd-looking couple,” adds Farrell. “What people see here are two people that look like they’re very different, sound like they’re very different and maybe even feel very different, and yet somehow that’s never articulated, we find out that they’re not so different, at all.”
In ‘Banshees,’ Colm’s abrupt plea for solitude stems from his being tired of “aimless chatting.” Feeling time slipping away, he wants to devote himself to writing music. (The song he’s writing is titled “The Banshees of Inisherin.”) Their discord has symbolism; the Irish Civil War is raging on the mainland. But it most reflects the struggle of an artist, perhaps a self-serious one, to balance work with the demands of social convention.
“Aimless chatting,” of course, is no small part of movie promotion – especially for a critically acclaimed film like ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ forecast to play a major role through awards season. McDonagh’s previous film, the Oscar-winning ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,’ took that path, and, this time, Farrell’s performance has already been especially singled out. The trio pledged that this chat, at least, wasn’t aimless but, as Farrell said, “good, normal chatting.”
Still, it’s clear that the conflict in ‘Banshees’ is one McDonagh feels, himself.
“Time slips away with irrelevant nonsense all the time,” McDonagh says. “A long time ago I said: I have to write one thing a year. If it takes two weeks, the rest of the year is free for anything. But you have to stick to that.”
Reading, he grants, has gotten harder to make time for because of the Internet and phones. “A curse!” chimes Farrell. But the pandemic and the yearslong process to bring his last play, ‘Hangmen,’ to Broadway, has led McDonagh to turn his focus entirely to films.
“That I can’t show you how good we got ‘Lieutenant of Inishmore’ 20 years ago is unfair,” he says. “It’s a question I haven’t come to a concrete conclusion about. But there’s also a lack of democracy about theater. It’s too expensive and not enough people can see it. Unless you live in New York or London, you probably won’t see my stuff. Whereas a movie, not only is it going to last 20 years, 100 years if it’s a good one, you can get it anywhere. You can get it in Kansas City. You can get it in Ulaanbaatar. That’s democratic.”
“Actually, I don’t think we open in Kansas City,” Farrell adds, grinning.
But the 52-year-old McDonagh, like Gleeson’s Colm, is increasingly – “always, daily,” he says – focused on what he’s going to leave behind, what work of his might endure.
“If there’s, like, 25, 30 years left of one’s life, I think maybe 20 good films,” McDonagh says hopefully. “I’m not swearing off plays. I’m pretty sure I will do at least one or two more. But I think in the next bunch of years it’s going to be films. I think COVID has solidified that idea. I can go back and watch ‘In Bruges’ now and be overjoyed at what we captured. That’s why I’m leaning toward movies.”
With that kind of long-term plan, a trilogy for Farrell and Gleeson could be natural. Where next? Venice? Iceland?
“I’ve got no idea what it will be when we get together again. But I think you’re right, that I’ll find a place, I’ll see the town and that will tell us the story,” says McDonagh, musing on the geographical possibilities. “Maybe it’s the American West.”
” ‘The Geezers of Reykjavik!’ ” exclaims Farrell.
“I’m in. I’m in. I’m in,” says Gleeson, cackling. “Which geezer do I play?”