There have been few combinations as successful in cinema as miserable men and far-off islands, but The Banshees of Inisherin surpasses all previous experiments with an intelligent & multi-layered screenplay, gorgeous set & costume design, and powerhouse performances. And with the awards season in full swing, there is no better time to discuss this film. Especially considering it is one that many might not have seen. Getting to brass tacks, you should see it. The Banshees of Inisherin is a triumphant and poignant artistic achievement that manages to be laugh-out-loud hilarious whilst being unflinching in its portrayal of the ugliest facets of the human condition.
At its core, Irish auteur Martin McDonagh’s 4th film tells the tale of a friendship abruptly severed without any apparent reason. The two friends in question being Padraic and Colm, played by McDonagh’s old collaborators Collin Farrell and Brendon Gleeson, respectively. “I just don’t like ye anymore”, says Colm to a baffled Padraic, who is too ‘dull’. Colm wants to compose music and be remembered for the ages, and according to him, spending time with his simpleton friend will only lead to him fading into oblivion. In a film where a handful of extremely talented actors give their career-best performances, Colin Farrell’s manages to stand out. He essentially forces us to empathise and sympathise with him. His character might as well be dull, but his tendencies of talking about the banal and mundane for hours is overshadowed by his affable personality as he seems to be well-liked on the fictional Irish island of Inisherin. His persistence in asking his friend the most understandable question of ‘Why?’ only escalates the situation when Colm proclaims that he’ll cut off his fingers with a set of shears each time Padraic tries to talk to him. Thus commences the mutilation of relationships, presumptions, ideologies, and, quite possibly, chiral extrusions.
Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan are as magnetic as the leads in their portrayals of Siobhan and Dominic. Even Jenny, Padraic’s pet donkey, made a lasting impression in the limited time that it had. Siobhan, Padraic’s sister, is a smart, sincere, and loving person who is a refreshing character in an ocean of drab and depressing ones. Even her bright yellow sweater stood out amidst the greys and greens. Dominic, a problematic local lad, initially seems like a comic relief character, but this takes a serious turn later. The thing about this film is it is not a drama that happens to have a lot of funny moments like McDonagh’s previous film, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’. Nor is it a comedy that has a dark and serious undertone like his fantastic debut feature: ‘In Bruges’. This film is probably the pinnacle of a seamless blend of tragedy and comedy. One is virtually indistinguishable from the other. To conclude the review, The Banshees of Inisherin is a beautiful elegy that never lets its sombre tone weigh it down through its morbid humour. You’ll be doing a disservice to yourself and to the prospects of getting more films with artistic merit like these in the future should you choose not to support and watch this movie.
We’re now headed towards spoiler territory. I’d suggest watching the film and, more importantly, returning to read the rest of the analysis. Please?
With that out of the way, let us commence. This film has multiple different allegories and possible interpretations that rewards carefully rewatching it several times. And thus, it’s a good thing that the film is extremely rewatchable. Most movies that are as emotionally heavy as this one usually aren’t. The most obvious allegory is that of the Irish Civil War. Well, its obvious in hindsight. The director stated that this was the main intention several times in the build up to the film’s release. Two friends unnecessarily severing ties and descending into a bloody conflict is essentially the tale of the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The war taking place in the background and sometimes being talked about in the film hammers in on the interpretation. This war is a huge part of Irish culture, like our freedom struggle. So, to see an Irish director shedding light on this to the rest of the world is great.
However, I am not Irish. And neither are you (probably). At the end of the day, this isn’t enough for most of the world to deeply adore this film as the theme is not a universal one. McDonagh knew this, and thus, the film doubles as a study on how male friendships can decay and combust. It examines how people deal with depression, conflict, and the confrontation of the inevitability of being forgotten. It shows us how some men would rather resort to self-harm and self-isolation rather than talking things out. For Colm to talk to Padraic would be him admitting his state of depression. Instead, he chooses an insane coping mechanism: To shut Padraic off completely.
One of the early pivotal scenes involves a drunk Padraic finally confronting Colm about the ridiculous situation, lamenting the death of kindness. Colm says he doesn’t care if he’s not kind anymore. He just wants to be remembered for time immemorial through his music. He cites that everyone remembers a 17th century musician like Mozart but nobody will remember someone for his/her kindness. At this moment, the camera cuts back to Padraic, and you realise there’s a massive portrait of Jesus behind him. There are many Christian iconographies in the film, opening new angles for interpretation. But I shall leave that to the more biblically inclined readers out there.
Siobhan intervenes and defuses the kerfuffle. She corrects him by saying that Mozart is an 18th century figure. This shows us that Colm was not the master musician that he wanted himself to be, nor was he very smart. Alas, he is just an old man with several regrets in his life trying to shift the blame onto someone else, even if it ended up costing him a friendship. The following scene, disturbing and gory, entails Padraic hearing a thud outside his door the next day. He goes outside only to find a finger. The camera cuts to Colm walking with his four-fingered hand. A brutal cut, both of the shears and the camera.
This eventually spirals out into him cutting all five fingers, unburdening him of his ability to play the fiddle. During a confession with a priest, he states that he feels relieved. This reinforces the fact that he merely needed an excuse for the fact that he won’t be remembered for posterity. According to him, it’s Padraic’s fault that he has no fingers, and thus it’s Padraic’s fault that he won’t be able to create a legacy.
The nature of the conflict turns when Padraic’s donkey chokes to death on one of Colm’s severed fingers. Colm mellows out and maybe regrets treating Padraic the way he was. Padraic, however, is understandably enraged. By this point, his sister has left for the mainland to pursue her dream of being a librarian (a metaphor for the Irish diaspora that left the country during the Civil War). With the death of Jenny, Padraic was truly alone. As Padraic burns down Colm’s house, true to his promise, he sees Colm nonchalantly sitting inside, indifferent to the flames that are about to engulf him. Padraic gets Colm’s dog to safety because it didn’t do anything to him.
Meanwhile, Mrs McCormick, an elderly lady who was a friend of Siobhan’s, shows Dominic’s corpse in the lake to his father, a violent cop. The cop, earlier in the film, was gleefully making fun of a Protestant who drowned himself in the lake. A wicked sense of irony in his own son dying in the same way. Now, Mrs McCormick is an interesting character. With everything except her face clad in black, she eerily resembles the character of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s legendary film, The Seventh Seal (1957). This is intentional, of course. She sadistically warns Padraic that a death or two will come to Inisherin. This turns out to be frighteningly prophetic, with Dominic and Jenny passing away. Some liken her to a banshee, portending death. While others, a grim reaper. The way she drags Dominic’s lifeless floating body back to land with a ‘hook on a stick’ solidifies this claim. Of course, one of Dominic’s first scenes is him playing with the same ‘hook on a stick’ as he humourously says. One could thus say this is the first case of Chekhov’s Hook-on-a-Stick.
The morning after, Padraic finds Colm at the beach near the burnt house. Colm, his dog, and Padraic stand at the shore, gazing at the war-torn mainland. Colm wonders if the civil war has ended, hinting at him wanting to end the petty feud. But Padraic’s eyes, full of hate, suggest otherwise. “No, we’ll call it the start”, he says in response to Colm’s truce attempt. Thus, the cycle of violence continues. The primal nature of human conflict and war is summed up, and the film ends.
Written by Raamanujan