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Review: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson's fight can't carry 'The Banshees of Inisherin'

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Colin Farrell (left) and Brendan Gleeson in “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Photo: Searchlight Pictures

“The Banshees of Inisherin” feels like a writing exercise that got out of hand. Writer-director Martin McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “In Bruges“) starts with an idea: One day a man goes to visit his best friend, and the friend doesn’t answer the door.

Later, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) tells Pádraic (Colin Farrell), “I just don’t like you no more.” Padraic is hurt and confused, and the situation slowly builds from there. The rest is atmosphere: The movie is set in Inisherin, a fictional village off the coast of Ireland, and the year is 1923, during the Irish Civil War.

In ‘Banshees of Inisherin,’ director Martin McDonagh makes the end of a friendship feel like civil war

“Banshees” feels very loose, but not in a good way. Eventually, Colm explains himself. He reveals why he wants to cut himself off from Pádraic, and his explanation touches on deeper concerns regarding time, mortality and finding sense in the impermanence of existence. But none of it rings true. It feels as though McDonagh is just riffing, coming up with stuff as he goes along.

That could have been all right. A writer isn’t obligated to know, when he’s writing the first scene, what he’ll write in the tenth scene. But what McDonagh comes up with doesn’t illuminate his premise, but rather seems like a smokescreen to cover the fact there’s nothing there to illuminate. McDonagh employs cleverness to distract you from the movie’s essential emptiness.

He’s such a good writer he can strike gold wherever he digs, a few flecks here, a minor vein there. He mottoes a funny character called Mrs. McCormick, an old lady dressed in black, who scares everybody with dire predictions that have a way of coming true. Sheila Fitton plays the role right on the line between serious and Cloris Leachman — that is, Cloris Leachman in a Mel Brooks movie.

The best thing about “The Banshees of Inisherin” is Kerry Condon as Pádraic’s sister, an intelligent woman with an even temperament and a good sense of humor who finds herself marooned in the wrong part of Ireland and in the wrong half of the 20th century. Mocked as an old maid, she’s the one entirely sane person in the village, and the only one with any chance of finding happiness outside of it.

Kerry Condon in “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Photo: Jonathan Hession/Associated Press

Other incidental pleasures include the hilly, unspoiled landscape, which looks a little like patches of the Northern California coast. The movie was filmed in the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, just in case you’re looking for somewhere to relax.

But ultimately this is a movie about the two men, and there’s just not much there — not enough to justify a feature film. Perhaps knowing this, McDonagh tries to keep things lively by giving into his tendency toward the grotesque. He introduces a whole element of body mutilation, which isn’t funny or absurd in an interesting way, or believable in terms of character. However, it is disgusting.

For those who find this interesting, there’s also the spectacle of watching actors struggle. Farrell’s struggle is to make something of a character whose only note is dejection. Gleeson’s struggle is to give balance and internal life to a character whose outward behavior actually makes no sense at all.

Both actors fail, but they end up making the cinematic void that is “The Banshees of Inisherin” seem a little fuller than it is.

L“The Banshees of Inisherin”: Comedy-Drama. Starring Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. Directed by Martin McDonagh. (R. 109 mins.) In theaters Friday, Oct. 28.