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Human Moments

“The Banshees of Insiherin” conjures an aura of submerged Irish longing, and Jennifer Lawrence returns to form in “Causeway.”

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It’s winter. Your heart aches. You walk into a small bar where a fire is roaring in the corner. You saddle up and order a bourbon and feel it as it crawls down your throat, its warmth complementing the fire. There is something deliciously melancholy about such an image, which has the sort of feeling that Irish folk music conjures effortlessly. So does Martin McDonagh’s very Irish “The Banshees of Inisherin.”

For “The Banshees of Inisherin” to work, you have to accept that it’s about bone-deep feelings of boredom and regret and loneliness. Feelings of loss and lostness that can make you mad with desperation to change the shape of things. The movie makes virtually no rational sense, and this quality has bothered people who prefer their art more clean-cut and on the up-and-up. Personally, I wish it had tilted further into irrationality.

McDonagh’s problem as a director and especially as a writer is that he tries to logically conjure irrationality. He’s like a mathematician forging proofs of poetry. His tonal U-turns and flights of fancy worked for “In Bruges,” which had a casual, buddy movie-gone-nuts vibe that served it. In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” there’s a more willful need to shock the audience with wild oscillations between cartoon humor, tragedy, and ultraviolence—bathos. McDonagh’s gambits work like gangbusters in the moment, especially given the timidity of mainstream cinema, but as the visceral impact wears off, a feeling of superficiality sets in. I first saw “Ebbing, Missouri” at a film festival while severely jet-lagged and thought it was wonderful. I saw it again six months later, well-rested and fed, and thought I’d been had.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” has the same tactical shock-and-awe effect as McDonagh’s other movies, which sometimes interferes with what’s really good about it: that aura of submerged Irish longing that recalls the plaintive power of certain John Ford pictures. To his credit, McDonagh takes his foot off the gas pedal here. “Banshees” has less of the narrative trickery of prior endeavors, but it nevertheless loses its heartbeat at a certain point, getting stuck in a holding pattern of cause-and-effect that distracts from the absurdist beauty of the performances and McDonagh’s dialogue.

McDonagh’s high concept is frighteningly random: Colm (Brendan Gleeson) decides that he’s no longer friends with old chum Pádraic (Colin Farrell). They are certainly a study in contrasts, as Colm is a sturdy man in upper middle-age, who carries himself with a self-conscious air of intelligence, while the younger, less confident Pádraic floats through existence with little going on as “one of life’s good guys.” Colm’s decision to reject Pádraic happens off screen before the movie opens and no one in Inisherin has much of an explanation for this turn of events.

It’s obvious, and Colm eventually more or less admits it, that Pádraic’s lack of ambition underscores his own sense of wasting his life. Ever take comfort from looking at a buddy and thinking, “Christ, at least I don’t have it that bad,” until one day you come to understand that you are him, which ironically drives you against the buddy who has done nothing wrong, apart from liking you on his and your terms? That’s what’s going in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” and such a specific sense of self-loathing is rarely explored in cinema. That self-loathing is accorded a physical expression: Every time that Pádraic speaks to Colm, the latter will cut off a finger. Fancying himself a violin player, Colm needs his fingers, and his abandonment of Pádraic was ostensibly so he could spend less time bullshitting and more time composing, details which invest this whole arrangement with a deep impression of a nose being sliced off to spite a face.

Which is to say that the set-up may have the ghoulish punch of a parable or a barroom joke, but there’s a rich bedrock of real emotion to sustain it. Colm is someone who is very common to small communities: the pseud who fancies himself above what he perceives as the surrounding rabble, who steels himself against a tide of self-hatred with unearned feelings of superiority. Gleeson is a naturally sympathetic presence, with his elegantly craggy voice and face, and with a large body that appears to be both stout and vulnerable. Yet I was surprised at how thoroughly Gleeson and McDonagh weaponize this likability. Underneath his courtly cadences, Colm is a thoroughly unpleasant person who buddies up with a sadistic police officer while rejecting Pádraic for the crime of being boring.

Pádraic is a strange role for Farrell. He’s the subject of McDonagh’s sympathy and the center of the film, yet he’s still a daringly thankless character. Farrell has played impulsive and dim before, most notably for McDonagh in “In Bruges,” but the bad-boy fire that made him a star was still evident. Farrell expunges that as Pádraic, yet his performance isn’t a soft, easy bid for tears. Pádraic is pitiful, which Farrell plays for sharp comedy and for moments of heartbreak so profound they nearly stop “Banshees” cold. A moment in which Colm takes mercy on Pádraic after a public humiliation, offering a fleeting reminder of the acceptance that’s been extinguished from their relationship, is among the best moments of Farrell and McDonagh’s careers.

The first half of “The Banshees Inisherin,” following Colm and Pádraic as they bounce off the locals, particularly Pádraic’s tender, wise, and lonely sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), is somehow a warm, tender, chilly, dissonant ballad of disappointment all at once. Per his wont, McDonagh has to keep piling things on though. The film is set in 1924 during the Irish Civil War, and more than once it’s indicated that Colm and Pádraic’s seemingly arbitrary feud is a metaphor for this larger case of violence and paranoia, of brother turning against brother. That metaphor is fine as far as it goes but also seems to be immaterial—an intellectual gambit forced upon emotional, free-associative material. There’s also the matter of Dominic (Barry Keoghan), the village idiot who is for Pádraic what Pádraic is for Colm: a reflection of what Pádraic sees in himself. Keoghan is every bit as moving as Farrell, Gleeson, and Condon, but the character feels like an artistic stacking of the deck, an excuse to double down on an already generous serving of misery.

The ending, too, is the rare case of a turn that’s been prepared for thoroughly yet nevertheless feels like a cheat. If “The Banshees of Inisherin” had ended 5 minutes earlier, it would’ve been on a high note, a moment of what might be called cathartic irresolution. Like Colm and Pádraic, McDonagh can’t quite leave well enough alone.

Lila Neugebauer’s “Causeway” is another buddy movie of a decidedly forlorn variety, also set against a war. Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) suffered brain trauma while serving in Afghanistan and is back in her home of New Orleans to sort things out. She wants to return to active duty, though Dr. Lucas (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is understandably of the opinion that she is not ready. Lynsey gets a job cleaning pools and falls into a friendship with James (Brian Tyree Henry), who is missing a leg from a car accident.

When you spend a large amount of your time with cinema, you sometimes get scared for movies that start off unexpectedly good, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the cliches to settle in. It often feels like the first half of a movie has the fire of passion and inspiration that drew filmmakers to produce it, with the second half serving obligatory script functions borrowed from hundreds of other movies. “The Banshees of Inisherin” can never be accused of becoming typical, but it seems that McDonagh was turned on by the set-up rather than the follow through. “Causeway” never goes wrong though, because Neugebauer has the sense to stand back and keep the minimal plot out of the actors’ way. I’m happy to report that Lynsey never quite learns a “very special lesson” about the war in Afghanistan, or at least it’s not framed as such. She simply outgrows a need to run.

Most of “Causeway” is composed of long scenes between Lawrence and Henry and bless whoever thought to put these actors together. Lawrence was astonishingly unaffected in Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” from 2010, and while I’ve enjoyed her in certain movies since, I’ve never shaken the impression that talent was being squandered. For Lawrence, “Causeway” suggests a second first movie, a return to startling naturalism. The precision of her awkward body language, for Lynsey is relearning how to be a regular person, is a thing of beauty, especially the way Lynsey plops into a plastic pool to talk to her mother. The openness of Lawrence’s face, her total allergy to actorly gimmicks, is revelatory. Meanwhile, Henry’s James seems to live in a storm cloud. James is a volatile, wounded presence, reflecting outwardly the sort of demons that Lynsey is hiding behind supposed transparency to get back to Afghanistan. Henry has perfected a way of seeming intimidating and brutally alone at once; a skill he honed on FX’s “Atlanta.”

“Causeway” is a reminder that if you have two good, in this case great actors, and a bit of subtext for them to play, you’ve probably got a reasonably compelling movie. That’s all it takes. It’s infuriating to watch as modern movies pile on gimmick after gimmick, set piece after set piece, in a bid to avoid intimacy. It’s understandable: intimacy’s tough. There were moments in “Causeway,” of Lynsey and James surveying one another, where I wanted to look away. And a kiss, not exactly romantic but raw and rich in emotional confusion, is among the most vulnerable moments I’ve seen at the movies this year.

Lawrence might be the bigger star, but she knows she’s acting against someone formidable in Henry, and watching him bring her down to Earth from Hollywood pablum mirrors how James forces Lynsey to confront her identity as “returning soldier.” During the busy holiday season, such unaffectedly human moments can themselves suggest a fire, a bourbon, a refuge from the gathering storm outside.

“Banshees of Insiherin” is playing at Movieland at Boulevard Square and Regal Comonwealth, and you can stream “Causeway” on Apple TV+.

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