A few years back during a discussion of Inside Llewyn Davis, a friend of mine raved about “every movie should have a magical cat.” Oddly enough, those words stuck with me almost as much as the movie itself (which is one of my all-time favorites).
“Magical cat” is one of the most succinct encapsulations I’ve heard of something that pretty much has all my favorite movies (and really all kinds of art in general). Llewyn Davis’s cat (really the Gorfeins’ cat, if you want to get technical) kind of exists simultaneously in the physical and the metaphysical realms. Yes, it’s a literal cat, doing believable cat things like wandering down the fire escape and running away into the night, but it also allows for broader interpretation – like maybe this cat is not just a cat, but an agent of chaos, a message from the universe.
The magical cat is a kind of non-prescriptivist symbolism, an element of writing that becomes self-aware. As opposed to, say, the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, who shouts “I am the symbolic element!” the magic cat’s magic is simply there if you want to see it, like probably all signs of the universe. It is not necessarily religious, but a recognition that the universe has, or can have, a logic beyond that which the storyteller can adequately explain or control.
Put another way, Stephen King wrote in his memoirs that he knew he was on the right track when his characters started talking to him and acting almost of their own accord. The best fiction always has such characters, who seem to exist outside the boundaries of the texts. That’s why people (read: me) can discuss The Sopranos for hours on end; the characters seem to have personalities, likes and dislikes, inner lives beyond what their creator prescribes for them. I know David Chase had something he wanted to say, but in the process of creating such wonderful characters, their interactions kind of took on a life of their own beyond the initial inspiration.
This is all a very long way of saying that Barry Keoghan, formerly of The Green Knight and recently from The Banshees of Inisherin (and yes, also Druig van Eternals) has become something of a magical cat unto itself. He plays very similar characters in all three — all variations on “wild-eyed, hedgehog-like Irish thug” — so it’s not like he’s a chameleon in the Daniel Day-Lewis mode. It’s more that he has a natural wildness to him that seems to transcend the boundaries of the story. There is an element of natural unpredictability to Keoghan (who was partly raised in foster homes) that makes him a wildcard whose unpredictability cannot be contained even within a predictable script. Keoghan seems to define Irish shenanigans as Ben Mendelsohn defines Australian shenanigans, or Walton Goggins to American shenanigans. (We may need a second post for each country’s respective national rogue).
Keoghan’s chaotic energy stands out in particular The Banshees of Inisherin, perhaps because it feels like such a prescriptive movie. In many ways, Banshees is a showcase for what Martin McDonagh does best—that is, stage theatrical versions of pastoral New Yorker cartoons. Two characters have a dull interaction with a line of sight, some cyclical dialogue and a perfect button.
Bansheeswhich is much better than McDonagh’s two previous efforts, Three billboards and Seven Psychopaths, is very clever, but the only time it ever feels like the characters are talking to the creator and not the creator talking through the characters is when Keoghan is on screen. Which is a shame considering Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are the two leads Bansheesis generally quite sly himself.
Set on the fictional island of Inisherin during the Irish Civil War, from which the island is particularly isolated, Colin Farrell plays Padraic (pronounced “PAR-ick,” sorta), who recently discovered that his best and only friend, Colm (Gleeson) ) don’t want to be friends with him anymore. Not because of any particular fallout, but simply because Colm finds Padraic dull, and he doesn’t want to waste his last few years on Earth listening to Padraic’s dull blather. He would rather spend it practicing the Irish national pastime, staring wistfully at coastlines and composing music to play on his fiddle.
Being nice and making small talk is irrelevant, Colm explains, because when we’re dead and gone, no one will remember who was nice. It’s only art that endures. So in his position is Colm that he promises Padraic that every time Padraic tries to talk to Colm, Colm will cut off one of his fidgeting fingers and give it to Padraic. McDonagh, an inveterate self-plagiarist (thankfully no little people get karate chopped this time), appears to have borrowed this footage from his 2010 cut-hand game A Treatment In Spokane. So much so that I couldn’t help but give Banshees the alternative title of An Unfriendship In Land’s End.
Unlike that play, at least McDonagh chose his setting here for reasons bigger than “it sounded cool in the title.” To his credit, McDonagh even makes fun of himself here. “The Banshees Of Inisherin” is a piece of music that Colm composes, and when Padraic asks him why he calls it that, Colm says it’s because he’s always liked those double S-haiche sounds.
Banshees is always smart and watchable in the way that every scene is its own standalone New Yorker cartoon. It’s all pretty good, with sight gags including a cute little donkey and a bewildered naked guy with his hat still on (McDonagh seems to have evolved from little people as sight gags to little donkeys – progress!).
Yet Padraic and Colm, as well as the rest of the characters, which include Dominic’s alcoholic police father, played by Gary Lydon and Padraic’s sister Siobhan, played by Kerry Condon, never quite get to the point of feeling like they are speaking for themselves . Until the end credits roll, Padraic and Colm feel like competing viewpoints – McDonagh’s instinct to value friendship and family as the meaning of life (Padraic) versus his instinct to elevate art above all interpersonal relationships (Colm).
McDonagh seems to retain something of the star pupil about him, reaching for ends that are provocative and intentional and reflect the competitive poles of human nature—the kind of stories an art school professor would have no choice but to give an A not rate – but doing so at the cost of not allowing the characters entirely breathe.
That’s why Barry Keoghan, who plays the local criminal widely recognized as the only Inisherin resident demonstrably duller than Padraic, stands out. He is the only one Banshees character that inspires you to speculate about his inner life, to think of more than just a creator’s tool, who seems to have had gifted free will. And I think that’s as much due to Keoghan’s energy as an actor/person as it is to the way McDonagh wrote the character (with all credit to the way McDonagh directed the director Keoghan).
Keoghan is simply too much of a rogue to be constrained by a script, even by a strictly prescriptivist writer like McDonagh. He is a human magical cat, who with his every squirming mannerism and wild-eyed stare inspires us to dream, to contemplate the infinite unpredictability of the cosmos. Every movie needs a magical cat. Every country needs a national rogue. Each Banshees Of Inisherin need a Barry Keoghan.
‘The Banshees Of Inisherin’ is currently in select theatres. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.