For decades, British playwright and director Martin McDonagh has been writing about strange people who somehow manage to find themselves in strange situations. But his latest venture, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” stands out for its particularly unremarkable premise. Set in a dreary Irish island town, this two-hour-long film centers around the relationship between two middle-aged men, Colm and Padraic, who are old friends, or rather, drinking pals. One fine day, Colm decides to be unresponsive towards Padraic and states that he wishes to sever all ties with him.
McDonagh’s mastery manifests in his ability to breathe life into his characters. In spite of (and also because of) the strikingly trivial premise, he manages to lead an exploration, through his ensemble of eccentric characters, into the crux of human existence. Friendship among men is one aspect that has hardly been adequately represented in cinema as a living, breathing, and evolving entity. We have seen men fight wars or make important decisions together—they have either been allies, enemies, or indifferent to one another. In “The Banshees of Inisherin,” the declaration of such a friendship as the foundation of the plot allows glimpses of the various affectations of the human mind. To understand the forces that drive the characters, one must first look at the intricately constructed backdrop of the film. In a torpid town where nothing much happens, two old friends falling apart become news. It is also important to note that, had it been a lovers’ quarrel, the tone of “The Banshees of Inisherin,” would have been entirely different. In the latter case, there would have been room for a certain mawkishness to cloud better judgments, and anything expressive would not have felt so out of place.
The poignancy of “The Banshees of Inisherin” stems from the unexpressed, shrouded emotions that most scenes contain, lurking just beneath the surface and threatening to reveal themselves at any moment. Let us take a closer look at Padraic, one of the most conflicted characters in the film. Padraic is the epitome of the “good, social man.” He is nice and polite to everyone and thinks this is his moral duty. His interactions with Colm revolve around the most commonplace of things. When Colm shuts him out, Padraic is visibly perturbed. In his insipid life, this is a monumental change. Though he is annoyed by other people’s remarks, he puts in much effort to feign indifference. Yet his thoughts take an interesting turn as he tries to come up with possible explanations for Colm’s silence. He wonders if he is sick or has encountered bad news. He wonders if Colm is offended by something he said under the influence of alcohol. And then he begins to believe, as if it were a discovery, that his friend is only making a fool out of him.
We learn more about Padraic as Colm’s character unfolds in parallel. Padraic is unable to understand Colm’s need for quietness and solitude and to cut down on chatter. Colm’s abrupt behavior is a source of great confusion for Padraic. Padraic is a man who is ensconced in the conventions and morals of humankind. He resides within beliefs that are meant to shield him from the difficult truths of life. But a major blow to this house of cards comes when Colm tells him that he finds his ever-pleasing demeanor to be uninteresting. Padraic’s character derives its depth from a whirlpool of conflicting emotions. He is forced to question his fundamentals but is afraid of the emptiness that will ensue if he lets go of his certitudes. Hence, he resorts to a mixture of denial and self-pity. His sister, Siobhan, reassures him, but that is short-lived. And the fact that he never stops pursuing Colm only indicates that he is immensely hopeful that Colm will come around.
One must say that Colm’s intentions are fairly obscure as well. He has been portrayed as a man in the winter of his life, gripped by existential dread, terrified of oblivion, and seeking solitude. We have often come across the archetypal artist in films—tortured, alienated, and cocooned into themselves. But Colm’s insanity comes as a surprise, as he is seen to be fairly social with the rest of the town and quite ambitious about his music. He only keeps on vehemently insisting that Padraic must leave him alone, which is the only thing that seems to be costing him his peace. Yet, there are a few occasions where he seems to be feeling genuinely compassionate towards Padraic.
The events take a harrowing turn as Colm chops off his finger and places it at Padraic and Siobhan’s doorstep and threatens to continue to do so until Padraic stops bothering him. There is no rational argument that can explain his behavior except that he, too, is deeply troubled. It is difficult to comment upon Colm’s inner life as he is mostly a quiet presence, but in one of Stanley Kubrick’s interviews, he said that if human beings paused and reflected upon the inevitable end of their trivial lives, they would lose their sanity or be struck by an acute sense of futility. As the film progresses, a perceptible emptiness grows stronger and stronger in his actions. Padraic’s desperation provokes a drunken outburst, of which he is greatly ashamed. But when he learns that Colm is appreciative of it, he tries hard to conform to this newfound notion of meanness. It is evident that no profound change has taken place within him. But in his endeavors, he manages to lose the only other company he has—Dominique. Padraic turns truly vengeful and cynical when he loses his pet donkey, Jenny. And even then, he pursues Colm— this time not out of friendship but animosity.
The evolution of Padraic’s character makes us reconsider the notions of good and evil. Even though Padraic believed that he was acting out of propriety, most of his actions had the sole purpose of alleviating his loneliness. When his sister mentions to him that she is leaving, the first thing that comes to his mind is his own well-being. But the genteel Padraic never strikes us as an antagonist, except at the very end, when he burns down Colm’s house. There are mentions of the Irish Civil War in the film. It makes one wonder if two old friends caught up in an inexplicable feud is a metaphorical representation of the same. But I feel one often tends to detach oneself from a film by over-analyzing it and coming up with symbolic references—it gives us the satisfaction of a logical explanation and does not let us dwell in the unpredictability of the characters or of our own selves. And perhaps, this very tendency to detach from ourselves is the one that wages wars against governments or old friends.
See more: Understanding The Consequences Of War Through Padraic & Colm’s Relationship In ‘The Banshees Of Inisherin’