THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN (2022)

November 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. IN BRUGES is a cinematic litmus test. It turns out, whether someone is a fan of that movie or not is a particularly dependable indicator of similar or disparate tastes in dark comedy material. For me, it’s a film I never tire of … whether re-watching in its entirety or catching just a few scenes while surfing. The plot is bleak, yet we laugh. The characters are sad, yet we are charmed. It’s the perfect blend of character, story, and setting … and proves how exceptional and precise screenwriting can be. So why am I writing so much about a movie from 2008? Well, that film’s writer-director, Martin McDonagh, is back, and he’s brought along that film’s co-stars, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.

Now don’t think this is yet another in the endless stream of Hollywood sequels. It’s not. These are (much) different characters in a (much) different setting. What does remain the same is the onscreen magic when Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson collaborate with writer-director McDonagh. It’s how some singers are meant to sing one song (Sinatra belting “New York, New York”), or how some athletes are tied to a particular team (Sandy Koufax to the Dodgers). These three talented men are at their best when working together.

Padraic (Farrell) and Colm (Gleeson) have been best buddies for most of their lives. Every day at 2:00, Padraic fetches Colm and they head to the pub. One could set their watch by this. That all changes one day when Colm refuses to answer the door when his pal knocks. Later that day, he informs Padraic that they are no longer friends, as he refuses to waste another moment drowning in inane conversation, and instead will focus on fiddle music and living his life to the fullest. Padraic is shook and confused … as are the bartender and the other folks in this quaint (fictional) seaside village in coastal Ireland. There is a certain symmetry with the civil war playing out on the mainland and this break in a friendship. A crack about not knowing why the sides are fighting in the war adds yet more symmetry as Padraic searches for meaning in the rift.

When Colm finally tells Padraic that he doesn’t like him anymore and he doesn’t want his old friend speaking a word to him, we initially understand and agree with his reasoning, even if it seems a bit harsh. Padraic is a bit of a bore – a man satisfied with his work as a milk farmer and spending off hours petting Jenny, his pet donkey, before blowing a couple more hours chatting at the pub, and ultimately retiring to the tiny cottage he shares with his erudite sister Siobhan (a superb Kerry Condon, “Better Call Saul”, “Ray Donovan”). Dull, dim, not a thinker … all descriptions of Padraic we hear, though his self-reflection finds a gentle, kind soul – mostly harmless and enjoying his daily life. Well, that is, right up until his best friend locks him out.

The interactions between Padraic and Colm are fascinating to watch. The two actors play off each other so well, we find ourselves hoping they will be together on screen without a break. It’s here where McDonagh’s script really shines. Ms. Condon as Siobhan and Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) as Dominic both play significant roles  (as does Jenny the miniature donkey). What initially seems like commentary on a shattered friendship between two men expands significantly thanks to these two characters. It reminds us that our network, regardless of how small, has an impact on others, even on a remote island in Ireland. The script and actors blend here to drive home the point.

Siobhan begins to question her own existence and how she might pursue her own dreams. Local boy Dominic is the son of an abusive policeman, and his troubles seem to run deeper than just being the town oddball. He likely has mental issues, yet occasionally shows flashes of hyper-awareness. He befriends Padraig after the split, and his unconventional personality never quite sits well with others. When Dominic’s own dream gets shot down, he doesn’t possess the capacity to handle it well. The story and the island sustain tragedies, both small and large, and to top it off, there is a creepy old woman in the village who has visions of death.

Once we have settled into the drum beat of the split between Padraig and Colm, McDonagh raises the stakes, bringing an unusual form of violence into the proceedings. This catches us and Padraig and the whole of the village off guard, and makes for a stunning visual and eye-opening shock. There is no way to go into further detail without spoilers that should not be conveyed. What you need to know is that this is expert filmmaking, superb screenwriting, and the best acting of Colin Farrell’s career … leading the way for other excellent performances. Facing one’s own mortality is never easy, and we can each relate to Colm’s search for meaning as he sees time slipping away. The film also treats us to the best ever confessional scene, and more frequent uses of the word “fecking” than we’ve ever experienced. The beauty of the island is shown, but never featured. Instead, McDonagh does what he does best – delivers memorable characters and dialogue and unforgettable surprises. He also makes us wonder if our laughter is socially acceptable, causing us to be thankful for the dark theater.

Opening wide in theaters on November 4, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Once out of our teen years (though some take a bit longer), the vast majority of us accept the obvious truth to the adage “life is not fair”. Despite this, we never outgrow our desire for justice when we feel wronged. Uber-talented playwright/screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh delivers a superb drama blended with a type of dark comedy that allows us to deal with some pretty heavy, and often unpleasant small town happenings.

Oscar winner Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a grieving mother whose daughter was abducted and violently murdered. With the case having gone cold, Mildred is beyond frustrated and now desperate to prevent her daughter from being forgotten. To light the proverbial fire and motivate the local police department to show some urgency in solving her daughter’s case, Mildred uses the titular billboards to make her point and target the Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards cause quite the ruckus as the media brings extra attention, which in turn creates conflict between Mildred and the police department, the town citizens, and even her own son (Lucas Hedges). The film could have been titled ‘The Wrath of Mildred’ if not for so many other facets to the story and characters with their own layers. Her anger is certainly understandable, though some of her actions are impossible to defend. Things can never again be square in the life of a parent who has lost a child, yet vengeance is itself a lost cause.

Mr. McDonagh’s exceptional script utilizes twisted comedy to deal with the full spectrum of dark human emotions: managing the deepest grief, anger, guilt, and need for revenge. As in his Oscar winning script for the contemporary classic IN BRUGES (2008), his dialogue plays as a strange type of poetry, delivering some of the most harsh and profane lines in melodic fashion. In addition to his nonpareil wordsmithing, Mr. McDonagh and casting director Sarah Finn have done a remarkable job at matching many talented performers with the characters – both large roles and small.

Following up her Emmy winning performance in “Olive Kitteridge”, Ms. McDormand is yet again a force of nature on screen. She would likely have dominated the film if not for the effectively understated portrayal by Mr. Harrelson, and especially the best supporting performance of the year courtesy of Sam Rockwell. His Officer Dixon is a racist with out-of-control anger issues who still lives with his mom (a brilliant Sandy Martin, who was also the grandma in NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE). Caleb Landry Jones once again shows his uncanny ability to turn a minor role into a character we can’t take our eyes off (you’ll remember his screen debut as one of the bike riding boys near the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). Here he plays Red, the owner of the billboards with an inner desire to carry some clout. Rounding out the absurdly deep cast are Zeljko Ivanek, Kerry Condon, Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, and Clarke Peters (the epitome of a new Sheriff in town). Every actor has at least one moment (and monologue) to shine, and one of the best scenes (of the year) involves Nick Searcy as a Priest getting schooled on “culpability” by Mildred.

Cinematographer Ben Davis has a nice blend of “big” movies (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON) and small (TAMARA DREWE) in his career, and here he really captures the feel of the small town and interactions of the characters. Also adding to the film’s excellence is the folksy, western score (with a touch of dueling gunfighters) by Carter Burwell. And keeping the streak alive … it’s yet another worth-watching film featuring a Townes Van Zandt song.

Not many films dare tackle the list of topics and issues that are touched on here: church arrogance, police violence, racism, cancer, domestic violence, questioning the existence of God, parental grief with a desire for revenge, the weight of a guilty conscience, and the influence of parents in a rural setting. The film is superbly directed by Mr. McDonagh, who now has delivered two true classics in less than a decade. It’s the uncomfortable laughs that make life in Ebbing tolerable, but it’s the pain and emotions that stick with us long after the credits roll. Sometimes we need a reminder that fairness in the world should not be expected, and likely does not exist. If that’s true, what do we do with our anger? McDonagh offers no easy answers, because there are none. But he does want us to carefully consider our responses.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)

October 14, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. When a writer/director sets a standard with a film like In Bruges, the anticipation for the follow-up is palpable, especially from those of us with the demented sense of humor necessary to watch that film over and over. Martin McDonagh is a writer firs (shorts, features and plays), and a self-taught filmmaker second. He again shows his talent for interesting characters in unusual situations, and an extraordinary blend of black comedy, violence and personal struggles with morality.

This film is a smart (but dark) comedy about characters who aren’t nearly as smart as they see themselves. It’s quite self-referential and at its best is a self-parody. Colin Farrell plays a writer who is blocked after creating the perfect title … “Seven Psychopaths”. Sam Rockwell plays his best friend who runs a crafty little dog-napping business and feeds Farrell possible story lines. He even goes as far as to run an ad asking real life psychopaths to come tell their story. Yep, this plan is just running smoothly until Rockwell kidnaps the dog of a local gangster played by Woody Harrelson.

What we quickly figure out is that we are watching Farrell’s writing process unfold on screen. The bigger challenge is trying to figure out which parts are really happening and which parts are fantasy or part of the creative process. The writing and acting are very skillful. Christopher Walken plays Rockwell’s partner and delivers what may be his best performance in years. It’s very offbeat and irregular … in other words, typical Walken.  Though there are many excellent scenes, the best ones involve Walken.

The script pokes fun at the weak female characters – Abbie Cornish as Farrell’s girlfriend, and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as Harrelson’s less-than-loyal girlfriend. The film also features some of my favorite character actors. In addition to Walken, we get the great Tom Waits as a bunny loving psychopath, Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker, Zeljko Ivanek as a henchman, and an opening scene with “Boardwalk Empire” alums Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.

 As wonderful a writer as McDonagh is, we can’t help notice the influences of Quentin Tarantino and the spaghetti westerns – especially The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. His comedic tendencies wrapped in violent sequences really challenge us as viewers. Trying to find the good in those who aren’t necessarily so good adds an element and complexity as the film throws violence in our face as the characters are confronting their deeper feelings on morality. Since Farrell’s character is a writer named Martin, we are probably safe in assuming that McDonagh is working through some of these same issues himself (especially the unnecessary violence and weak women characters).  McDonagh proves again to be one of the most intriguing and talented filmmakers working, and even though this one is a tick below his last one, I anxiously await his next.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you saw In Bruges and appreciated the dark comedy and philosophical nature OR you don’t want to miss a classic Christopher Walken performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to be light-hearted in nature OR you can’t appreciate the character who brings a flare gun to the final shootout in the desert

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOsd5d8IVoA