A few years back during a discussion of Inside Llewyn Davis, a friend of mine raved “every movie should have a magical cat.” Those words, oddly, have 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 virtually all of my favorite movies have (and really all types of art as a whole). Llewyn Davis’s cat (really the Gorfeins’ cat, if you want to get technical) sort of exists in the physical and the metaphysical realms simultaneously. Yes, it’s a literal cat, that does believably cat things, like wander down the fire escape and run off into the night, but it also allows for broader interpretation — like maybe this cat isn’t 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 the script that seems to become self-aware. As opposed to, say, the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, which shouts “I am the symbolic element!” the magical cat’s magic is merely there if you want to see it. Like probably all signs from the universe. It’s not religious, necessarily, but an acknowledgement that universe has, or could have, a logic beyond that which the storyteller can adequately explain. Part of the magic of creation is that the creation eventually evolves beyond the creator’s control.
Put another way, Stephen King wrote in his memoir that he knew he was on the right track when his characters started speaking to him, acting almost of their own accord. The best fiction always has characters like that, who seem to exist beyond the boundaries of the texts. It’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 great characters, their interactions took on a kind of life of their own beyond the initial inspiration.
This is all a very long way of saying that Barry Keoghan, previously of The Green Knight and recently of The Banshees of Inisherin (and yes, also Druig from Eternals) has become something of a magical cat unto himself. Keoghan plays very similar characters in all three — all variations on “wild-eyed, urchin-esque Irish rascal” — so it’s not as if he’s some chameleon in the Daniel Day-Lewis mode. It’s more that he has a natural wildness to him, which seems transcend the boundaries of story.
There’s an element of natural unpredictability to Keoghan (who was raised partly in foster homes) that makes him a wildcard whose unpredictability can’t be constrained even within a predictable script. Keoghan seems to define Irish rascalry the same way Ben Mendelsohn defines Australian rascalry, or Walton Goggins does for American rascalry. (We may need a second post for each country’s respective national rascal).
Keoghan’s chaotic energy stands out especially starkly in The Banshees Of Inisherin, maybe because it feels like such a prescriptivist movie. In many ways, Banshees is a showcase for what Martin McDonagh does best. Which is to stage theatrical versions of pastoral New Yorker cartoons. Every scene is a variation on the basic formula: two characters have a droll interaction, with a sight gag, some cyclical dialogue, and a perfect button.
Banshees, which is far 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 speaking to the creator, and not the creator speaking through the characters, is when Keoghan is onscreen. (Which is something of a shame considering Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the two leads in Banshees, are generally quite rascally).
Set on the fictional isle of Inisherin during the Irish Civil War, from which the island is peculiarly insulated, Colin Farrell plays Padraic (pronounced “PAR-ick,” sorta), who has recently discovered that his best and only friend, Colm (Gleeson) doesn’t want to be friends with him anymore. Not because of any specific falling out, but simply because Colm, he says, finds Padraic dull. He doesn’t want to waste his last few years on Earth listening to Padraic’s dull blathering. He’d rather spend it practicing the Irish national pastime, of staring morosely at sea-lashed shorelines, and composing music to play on his fiddle.
Being nice and making small-talk are irrelevant, Colm explains, because when we’re dead and gone no one will remember who was nice. It’s only art that endures. So set in his position is Colm that he promises Padraic that every time Padraic attempts to speak to Colm, Colm will cut off one of his fiddling fingers and give it to Padraic. McDonagh, an inveterate self-plagiarizer, seems to have borrowed this imagery from his 2010 severed hand play A Behanding In Spokane. Such that I couldn’t help giving Banshees the alternate title of An Unfriending In Land’s End. (Thankfully no little people get karate chopped this time around, small mercies.)
Unlike that play, McDonagh has at least chosen his setting here for reasons greater than “it sounded cool in the title.” To his credit, McDonagh even pokes fun at himself here. “The Banshees Of Inisherin” is a piece of music Colm is composing, and when Padraic asks him why he’s called it that, Colm says it’s because he’s always liked those double S-haiche sounds.
Banshees is always clever, and watchable in the way that each scene is its own self-contained New Yorker cartoon, all of which are pretty good. Sight gags include an adorable small donkey and a passed-out naked guy with his hat still on (McDonagh apparently having 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 cop father played by Gary Lydon and Padraic’s sister Siobhan played by Kerry Condon, never quite get to the point that they feel like they’re speaking for themselves. Right up until the end credits roll, Padraic and Colm feel less like real people than competing points of view — McDonagh’s instinct to value friendship and family as the meaning of life (Padraic) vs. his instinct to elevate art above all interpersonal relations (Colm).
McDonagh seems to retain something of the star pupil about him, stretching for endings that are provocative and intentional and reflecting competing the poles of human nature — the kinds of stories an arts school professor would have no choice but to grade an A, say — but doing so at the expense of not quite letting the characters breathe.
It’s why Barry Keoghan, playing the local delinquent widely acknowledged as the only Inisherin resident demonstrably duller than Padraic, stands out. He’s the only Banshees character that inspires you to speculate about his inner life, to think of as more than just a creator’s utensil, who seems to have been gifted free will. That seems as much due to Keoghan’s energy as an actor/person as it is due to the way McDonagh has written the character (with all due credit to the way McDonagh the director has directed Keoghan).
Keoghan is simply too much of a rascal to be constrained by a script. Not even a rigidly prescriptivist writer like McDonagh can do it. Keoghan is a human magical cat, who, with his every twitchy mannerism and wild-eyed stare inspires us to dream, to consider the infinite unpredictability of the cosmos. Every movie needs a magical cat. Every country needs a national rascal. Every Banshees Of Inisherin needs a Barry Keoghan.