An island erupts into Civil War in Martin McDonagh’s bittersweet ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’
The deepest wounds are self-inflicted; and spurned friends are the collateral damage. Two pub mates in Martin McDonagh’s hilariously harrowing drama The Banshees of Inisherin each embody a particular strain of masculinity: grim-faced geriatric Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) carries a stubborn gloom, while gentle middle-aged bumpkin Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) has a steely sort of good-natured charm. They’re an odd couple, both in age and in temperament. But you can imagine how their mismatched moods give complementary succor, especially on the sparsely populated island of Inisherin, just off the coast of Ireland. Imagine is the key word, though, since we never see it. Banshees begins on March 31, 1923, the day that Colm decides he no longer wants to talk to Pádraic.
THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Written by: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan
Running time: 114 min
Pádraic is puzzled beyond belief. It just doesn’t make sense. Neither does the bitterly contested Irish Civil War, for that matter, which at that point has been ravaging the mainland for nearly a year. That conflict feels a million miles away, despite the occasional sounds of cannon fire from across the sea. But now Inisherin has its own internecine warfare. “I just don’t like you no more,” Colm says matter-of-factly to a shaken Pádraic. What’s he done? Nothing that he hasn’t done before.
“He’s dull,” Colm tersely elaborates to Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon). ‘But he’s always been dull,” she replies indignantly. “No time for dullness,” he croaks. But Pádraic is shaken to his core. His simple life, and his sense of balance, come from the people on Inisherin—especially Colm. It’s beyond disbelief; it’s unfathomable.
He keeps visiting Colm, pretending that nothing happened, acting like it’s a joke, anything to get past this rupture. Maybe it’s an early April Fool’s Day prank. Or maybe Colm just wants to cleave off a part of himself. “The chats I had with a limited man,” he grumbles. Colm keeps spurning him, getting more impatient, until finally he gives him an ultimatum: if Pádraic doesn’t leave him be, Colm will start cutting off his own fingers. No idle threat for a pudgy fiddle player like Colm. Pádraic dismisses it. And then he hears a thump on his front door: the sound of a hurtled severed finger.
Pain suffuses Banshees, and slivers of consolation bubble up unexpectedly. Colm slow-dances with his sheepdog in his arms; Pádraic brings his miniature donkey into the house he shares with his sister. “I’m not putting my donkey outside when I’m sad,” he says. Colm is writing a song on his fiddle—at least so long as he has fingers to play it. He wants to leave something behind, anything, as long as it outlasts him. He knows it’s futile, but he does it anyway. “How’s the despair?” the town priest asks him. “It’s back again,” he replies.
Bleakness and grudges and loneliness are endemic on Inisherin, at least among the men. Just look at the local policeman, who beats his son Dominic (Barry Keoghan), a dense but direct lad whose blunt talk shows a pure, if misguided, heart. Not much seems to happen on Inisherin, but it’s less about idleness than it is about purpose. There’s a buoyancy to McDonagh’s dialogue, as always, and it always belies a nagging streak of bitterness.
Banshees is uproariously funny and deeply charming, but it masks a hard, tragic heart—one where mutilation of your own body is the logical extension of a life plagued with doubt. Colm knows those feelings all too well, with every passing year that he lives alone in a humble house. He imposes conditions on his surroundings, confusing frivolity with emptiness. And not admitting that any human connection, however shallow, is boundlessly rewarding.
Kindness is in short supply, especially in people like Pádraic who pride themselves on it; although his sort of kindness is too wrapped up in pride to really be kind. Which is what happens without a fuller sense of self, and which is also his why his goodwill eventually, inevitably, curdles. McDonagh’s film is a dark delight, but also a dour revelation, as uncompromising as its subjects and just as resolved about reaching its own sour destiny. It’s a bleak vision of the male psyche, exaggerated maybe, but too true to be ignored.