The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
Written & Directed by Martin McDonagh
The jury is still out for me on my feelings about Martin McDonagh’s films. I know they are great showcases of his sly storytelling and filmmaking skill. I just don’t know how much I like them or not. It’s a strange thing I haven’t encountered with many directors where I acknowledge that they make great films, but I feel passionately ambivalent about them. I can’t say I have loved his movies, but I have been entertained and impressed by some of them, including this one. Perhaps it’s something connected to his Irish sensibilities, a constant struggle between seeking approval while having a fiery determination to tell anyone giving it out to “feck off.” McDonagh makes movies that are distinctly Irish (even if they aren’t all set there) and very distinctly him.
The Irish Civil War was coming to an end in 1923. Life continues as usual on the fictional island of Inisherin; the locals occasionally hear gunfire on the mainland coast. Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) is oblivious to change and assumes life will always be as it has been. This ends abruptly when his longtime friend, Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), states he is tired of talking to him, and they are no longer friends. Pádraic is confused, unable to understand why this sudden shift has occurred. He tries to mend a wound he cannot name the source of, eventually growing angry at this sudden betrayal. Still, he holds fast to the idea that it can all be reversed, the friendship repaired. But something quite sad & broken festers within Colm, which even this renowned fiddle player cannot speak aloud.
Like all of McDonagh’s films, there’s an intentional confusion in tone & genre here. Yes, Banshees is a comedy. Yes, it is a drama. Yes, it is a darkly political film. You might think these things could clash, and they do, but somehow he makes it all work. This is the second “Oscar-style” movie I’ve seen this year that delivers a bleak, open ending. The other is Armageddon Time. I’m impressed that a director whose film is positioned for award-season accolades would make something with such a dark resolution that doesn’t provide the conclusion we might anticipate based on years of “these types of movies.” It’s downright impressive.
McDonagh is making it clear that he wants to talk about big unwieldy existential things, but it will be in a style that suits him. We think this is a pithy Irish comedy from the opening scenes, and yes, it is that, but there’s so much more. There’s a commentary on the danger of falling into sedentary living, of being locked in a routine and expecting the pieces to fall into place daily without thinking about why. McDonagh agrees with Colm that a life lived unexamined is no life. Yet, he doesn’t let Colm off the hook. This is a man who is correct that existential dread feels like the tune of the day, notes that match the color of his life and the world. However, he has not come to understand that his bluntness can harm Pádraic, and it does harm. Colm does things in moments of passion that he thinks will elevate him above Pádraic. Colm doesn’t grasp that he’s causing more of the hurt in the world that has brought him to this mental state.
This may shock you, but Irish people are known for being a tad emotionally repressed (/sarcasm). Banshees is a massive bloated balloon filled with repression. It threatens to burst, yet McDonagh never allows it to. What he does to the audience is worse than that. McDonagh starts at a point where the movie could be classified as a “comedy” and slowly but surely, without us realizing it, lulled into the place that movies take us, leaving the audience amid a stark emotional collapse. Pádraic never finds the peace he desires with his longtime friend; important people go & some die; these two men are left with each other and all the hate & animosity brewed up over two hours of cinema. It reflects the schism in the United States that widens by the day. I’m a part of that gap; my parents are strangers to me, and I don’t regret making those choices due to their actions, to permanently remove them from my life. Sometimes you must do painful things to save your soul, heart, and mind. That doesn’t mean they don’t sting, and that doesn’t mean you have days where you wish it all could have gone down differently.
Pádraic wants answers from Colm, and I don’t believe the latter can provide them to the former. Colm doesn’t even know why he’s become like this; he knows he cannot tolerate what he perceives as blind living any longer. The identical rotations around the sun have finally cracked him, and Colm is done. He has his music, which seems to bring him joy. However, in his existential malaise, he makes a series of horrible decisions that strip this one passion away from himself. And he does it just to be even meaner to Pádraic, to drive away his best friend. “He’s proving a point,” and that’s important, right? It’s the principle of the thing. How many times have we heard that line of bullshit from people who end up far more miserable than when they started? I can’t be mad at Colm; he doesn’t know how to articulate his emotions on this subject. It could be out of shame, fear, or a whole host of things people are taught to fear by institutions like the Church, Family, and Government.
Hovering around the edges of these two feuding men’s lives are a host of brilliant supporting characters. Pádraic’s one anchor in life is his sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon). She understands him better than anyone and loves him unconditionally. But Siobhán needs a life of her own; she has spent so much of it as Pádraic’s caretaker. We’re never given a clear explanation, but there are plenty of inferences that Pádraic may have a cognitive disability. He just doesn’t seem to understand some of the loftier things people around him talk about; life is far simpler from his perspective & routine is vital. Siobhán is one of three characters that manages to “escape” Inisherin. There’s a future for her off this island and she cannot simply abandon it just to feed her brother daily. He has to learn to do that on his own.
The other departure will be from Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan), the son of the local constable. Dominic is a touch harsher than Siobhán. Where she seeks to try and let her brother down easy and try to mend the friendship herself, Dominic tells Pádraic to fucking get over this asshole who is treating him like crap. I don’t know if I would heed Dominic’s word myself. He also seems stunted, an adult man who behaves like an erratic adolescent. We learn about Dominic’s home life, particularly the abuse he suffers at the hands of his cop daddy, even as a man approaching thirty. He also leaves the island differently from Siobhán. Not in the same way, but on the same day. There’s a third character I haven’t talked about yet who leaves, and, well, I’ll let you watch the movie to be hit by that ton of emotional bricks.
Colm is searching but can’t say for what. Pádraic is content but can’t explain why. So many arguments & fights have come out of circumstances like these, I suspect, since men were living in caves and started to wonder things. One man’s politics are those of something bigger than him, trying to make sense of war and mass death. The other man’s anger will emerge from personal grievance, turning a slight into his worldview. If that doesn’t resonate with people today, they are far less self-reflective than I had imagined.
And where does McDonagh stand in all of this? It just makes him fucking sad. This is a movie overflowing with sorrow in between the funny bits. The director isn’t going to sell you a line of bullshit, that good triumphs in the end, that people see the light, and love is the answer. That would be nice if life played out like that. But, unfortunately, people and their complicated brains just get in the way. Sometimes all you can do is feel sorrow at all the beautiful people, friendships, and chances for love that we fritter away in all too short a time on this planet.