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TIFF 2022: The Banshees of Inisherin, The Whale

Mondays at TIFF are about the Canadian and sometimes North American premieres of films that have already launched their Oscar campaigns via Venice or Telluride. The programmers want the weekend to be focused on world premieres, but they open the door after the weekend, and this year that led to a wave of likely future Oscar nominees, including “Women Talking,” “The Son,” “Empire of Light,” and a pair of films that Mr. Glenn Kenny covered out of Venice but that I was also able to see in lovely Toronto. I thought I’d offer some brief second thoughts on movies that I suspect we’ll be talking about for the next six months or so. We agree wholeheartedly on one of them, less so on the other.

The movie we both admire is Martin McDonagh’s hysterical and sharp The Banshees of Inisherin,” one of my favorite films of 2022. The writer/director of “In Bruges” is back in Ireland with a story of a shattered friendship that simply works on every level. Some have already written eloquently about how it reflects the civil war that unfolds across Galway Bay from this fictional Irish isle, but it’s also just a remarkably enjoyable comedy, with career-best work from Colin Farrell and McDonagh’s sharp wit in every exchange.

Farrell, who beat major talent at Venice to take their top acting prize and gives what might be my favorite performance of the entire year so far, plays Padraic, a simple man with a simple life. Every day at 2pm, he goes to his friend Colm’s (Brendan Gleeson) house and the two head off to the pub. Today, Colm doesn’t answer the door. Later in the day, he informs Padraic that they’re no longer friends. He’s decided there’s no time left in this world for the inane conversations he’s had with Padraic. He’s going to spend that time writing music and pondering deeper issues than the defecation of Padraic’s little donkey. Padraic doesn’t take it well, but Colm is immovable. It ultimately reaches violent ends, and McDonagh sticks the landing, capturing how something as a simple as a broken friendship can lead to all-out war.

McDonagh’s writing has been widely praised, but he deserves more attention for his skill with ensemble too. There’s not a weak link in this cast with Gleeson finding the perfect resigned gruffness for Colm, while Kerry Condon is spectacular as Padraic’s worried sister and Barry Keoghan shines as the troubled kid who may be Padraic’s new drinking buddy. The film belongs to Farrell, who is so naively sweet that we root for him to get through this rough passage in his life even as we come to understand perhaps why Colm found him so increasingly frustrating. McDonagh gets just the right balance of salty and sweet, giving his tale of a shattered Irish heart a wicked vein of dark humor and vicious commentary. There’s going to be some fantastic writing about this film and what it says about friendship, Ireland, art, and little donkeys. I can’t wait to read it.

There’s also going to be some excellent think pieces about what’s already become one of the most divisive films of the year, “The Whale.” Darren Aronofsky's latest is being debated even before most people have seen it because of its subject matter and how much practically everyone is rooting for star Brendan Fraser to have the comeback he deserves. And Fraser does admittedly give this drama his all, tapping into emotional veins that feel deeply personal. It's a daring, ambitious performance. 

Sadly, I'm less convinced that the source material deserves his efforts, or that the very talented Aronofsky ever figured out how to overcome its notable flaws. This is a shapeless melodrama, one that throws serious subjects like obesity, suicide, teen rebellion, religion, and sexuality into a blender without ever making the mix believable. Other than some nice choices by Hong Chau, all that works here can be found in Fraser’s haunted eyes—I wish this comeback performance was in a film that truly felt like it was trying to understand what’s behind those eyes instead of just pushing them to cry.

Fraser plays a writing instructor named Charlie, a teacher who never turns his camera on during Zoom sessions because he weighs 600 pounds. The film basically opens with a death sentence for Charlie when his nurse takes his blood pressure at a level that should be impossible. Rather than go to the hospital, Charlie chooses to spend his last week on Earth connecting with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink)—a decision that never rings true, despite Fraser’s best efforts to sell it. The small ensemble is filled in by a door-to-door evangelist named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who wants to save Charlie’s soul while he still has time.

Charlie is constantly preaching honesty and authenticity to his students, but I find very little of either in Samuel D. Hunter’s play or screenplay adaptation of it. Much will be made of the play's handling of obesity, and yet it’s really only the most prominent weapon in Hunter’s manipulative arsenal. He’s so intent on pushing the viewer’s emotions that the characters start to become pawns in a game. Don’t be fooled into thinking this film cares about people like Charlie beyond what they can do to activate your tear ducts. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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