If you’ve taken a ticket to the Martin McDonagh ride cinema, you know the Irish director excels in finding a middle ground between comedy and tragedy. This is a director who also seems averse to the idea of presenting characters that neatly fall on either end of good or bad. Take the divisive reaction to his last film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for instance, where he turns his focus on a racist policeman played memorably by Sam Rockwell. McDonagh’s characters are never really built in the traditional mold of heroism and escape—they are all puzzled, confused, and utterly real. Yet, in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which first premiered at the Venice International Film Awards back in September to a rapturous 10-minute ovation and eventually took home two awards—Best Actor for Colin Farrell and Best Screenplay for McDonagh himself—the director has turned in an emblematic study of masculinity that cuts deep. It is certainly his most humane, emotionally intuitive work yet.
The plot follows the sudden fallout between two friends, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), one fine morning when Colm sets his boundaries clear by stating: “I just don’t like you anymore.” So unrealistic is this statement to Pádraic that he still follows him to his house to join him at the local pub. Colm doesn’t bother to respond. He goes alone. At the pub, he has no intention of fooling around when he says, “Either you stay away from me, or I’m sitting outside.” Pádraic is rather shaken; he doesn’t know what to make of this sudden betrayal from a close friend. His sister Shioban (a glorious Kerry Condon) tells himher maybe he should just let him alone. She understands the limiting, toxic pattern of the place she lives; it has turned her into a hardened shell too. But Pádraic persists—he even thinks it’s an April Fool’s prank. But no, still not a word. Colm tells him that he’s fed up with his aimless chatter; last time, he had babbled endlessly about the excretion of his donkey for nearly two hours. For what reason does he have to invest in such a conversation? Asks Colm. He’d better take their friendship as a lost cause and move on.
The stage is set for dark comedy as the acidic humor dials up with the progression of events. Yet, by the time you realize it, “The Banshees of Inisherin” have snapped the tune shut, and a desperate, hauntingly sad silence endures. McDonagh’s film is one of immense humanity and intelligence, one whose effect is hard to shake off. It’s a magic trick- and if you felt unable to grasp the strange ways in which “The Banshees of Inisherin” holds after the first watch, you’re definitely not alone. This article is an attempt to unlock the little wonders that make the film so memorable. Spoilers ahead, so you’ve been warned.
Account For The Specific Details Of ‘The Banshees Of Inisherin’
The film is set in 1923 in the fictional Irish countryside that is regarded as an island by the handful of people who inhabit it. Everyone knows everyone. Occasionally, the echoes of gunshots and ensuring violence are heard from across the shore—the Civil War is still on. The history of difference and violence started after the Irish War of Independence, which ultimately resulted in the declaration of Ireland as a free state, which would remain within the British Commonwealth, nonetheless. A lot of tension arose within the state because of this, where some favored the decision, whereas others wanted total independence. It was a battle, a crisis among civilians; the conflict came at the expense of national pride.
If you take this element in context with “The Banshees of Inisherin,” the core breakup between Pádraic and Colm attains a thematically connected animosity between brothers. It is a microcosm of a nation at odds with itself. Pádraic and Colm’s difficulties threaten to rupture the peace of their idyllic rural existence, where each one tries to adjust to the bleak, limited means of livelihood. Pádraic is not only hurt because of Colm but also because he is perceived to be dull and boring. He cannot hide this hurt after a point- when his kindness gives way to anger. Who, besides Colm, is there to talk to? His sister? The local fella, Dominic (a terrific, scene-stealing Barry Keoghan)? Both of them get together for dinner at Pádraic’s and instantly emerge as far from being compatible options in place of Colm. Note how Dominic is the son of the local police officer, who doesn’t care which side of the war he is engaged with. His only hobbies are drinking and masturbation. He beats his son, and it gives way to a stunted hurt in Dominic’s perception of life, where he earnestly wants to pursue women in search of a companion but comes off as a creep. He is lonely and abused, a pitiful example of a man so desolate and written off that he doesn’t know where to go. “Well, there goes that dream then,” he says when Siobhán tells him that she never had feelings for him when he proposed. It’s a heartbreaking moment and the last straw for Siobhán to realize that there is no need to rot away in this place. She accepts the job offer to be a library assistant in town and leaves the island.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” don’t shy away from violence. Colm threatens that if Pádraic continues to bother him, he will cut his fingers off one by one and send them to him. What follows is unexpectedly cruel and sad. Yet the film doesn’t share why. Taylor Swift, who sat for a discussion with Martin McDonagh at this year’s directors table conducted by Variety, was surely in to extract some semblance of response in this space. She directly asked McDonagh what the “fingers” mean in the film, and admittedly, McDonagh said he didn’t really know; he kept them mainly because it was funny. It’s an apt response from an artist who would want to leave the interpretation to the audience. The self-mutilation is particularly harsh and shocking in the turn of events; the blood and the pain cut through the dry comedy with a such pervasive coldness that one is not really equipped to know what to make of it. Why would Colm do that to himself, knowing fully well that he won’t be able to play the fiddle? The film never explains Colm’s perspective here, and we only get a hint of what he terms as a certain kind of “despair” (a code word for depression). Colm’s depression stems from the fact that he certainly has no one in his life except his dog, for whom he really cares. In the beginning, he informs us that he wants to leave behind a legacy of some sort through his music. He knows that he doesn’t have much time left in this world, and he would rather spend that time in pursuit of something that will have an impact of some sort.
We don’t really get the point of view from Colm, but when Pádraic informs him that he deliberately lied to one of his students that his father has passed away so as to get rid of him- the final breach of trust is drawn. Colm cuts his fingers one by one and throws them in front of Pádraic’s house. When Pádraic returns, he finds his beloved donkey Jenny dead in the yard. The animal had choked on one of Colm’s fingers. Pádraic turns vengeful and remorseless at this and pledges to set Colm’s house on fire—it’s his final walk towards turning into a monster without any kindness. The bitterness all around has finally got him. It is important to remember that The Banshees of Inisherin works only from one perspective; we only get to see Pádraic’s side, so our sympathies lie with him. McDonagh is asking us to step out of that one limiting worldview for once and see that the world exists in other ways as well. If we had seen the film from Siobhán’s point of view, The Banshees of Inisherin would have turned into a different film altogether. Are we willing to try?
“The Banshees of Inisherin” carefully evades any easy explanation to sink its teeth into a dark existential dread with dry irreverence. McDonagh’s film is a bitter pill about the history of his homeland, where people fought with themselves for peace and failed to understand how it was never an option. Colm and Pádraic may stop their cold war momentarily, but what have they achieved after all this time? The picturesque landscape erodes away when they return to the dark, silent chambers of their homes. Only the ones who have escaped, in one way or another, can hope for some reason to live.