The Banshees of Inisherin


The writer-director Martin McDonagh is now four for four in my book with The Banshees of Inisherin, a melancholy Irish piece about loneliness, grievances, and other depressing things. Take the kids and make it a Christmas outing! But the movie is not nearly as hopelessly grim as it may sound. There are the lovely landscapes (Inishmore and Achill Island stand in for the fictional Inisherin, an isle off the coast of Ireland), the rich-flavored music by Carter Burwell, and the strong performances by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and others in the small cast. The narrative may be a downer, but the work offers pleasure. 

The conflict seems simple. Every day at 2pm, Pádraic (Farrell) meets Colm (Gleeson) at the latter’s house, and they head off to the pub. Except that Colm has decided he’s not up for that anymore. “I just don’t like you no more,” he informs Pádraic, without any particular malice. What he doesn’t like no more, we come to gather, has more to do with what Pádraic represents — sitting around with pints, gabbing about nothing, killing the decreasing hours Colm has left. Colm plays the fiddle, composes songs for it, and would like to leave some sort of legacy to mark his having been here other than being an amiable sounding board for an increasingly drunk Pádraic. Colm raises the stakes: if Pádraic doesn’t leave Colm alone, Colm will take his sheep shears to his own fingers, one by one.

Some will read resonances with the Troubles in these two men’s troubles — the film unfolds in 1923, and the cannonfire and rifle cracks of Ireland’s Civil War carry across the water to Inisherin — but at one point I saw the struggle here as commentary on how artists often feel the need to stand apart, hunker down in solitude and write their songs (or their screenplays), to the chagrin of their social mates — without whom the artist would have less human material as inspiration. Honestly, though, there are too many elements floating around in the narrative to allow us to lock it down to one meaning. For example, Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Condon) is a sane female presence in this largely male ensemble, calling out foolishness whenever necessary, but Condon scrapes the barnacles of cliché from the character. Siobhán doesn’t really fit with my artist theory, and maybe that’s her whole point as a person, not fitting. The subtle, insistent roles of animals in the film, too, seem to exist on a separate plane while intersecting emotionally with the humans. In general, the actors here burst the barriers of possible stereotype; Farrell and Gleeson invest the blinkered men with layers of feeling, so that we never doubt their actions however wild they get.

Pádraic just can’t leave Colm alone, like a sore tooth he can’t stop tonguing. He wants to return again and again to the source of his rejection. Maybe he doesn’t take Colm’s threats seriously enough to respect his wishes. (If the men were in present-day America, all Pádraic would have to do is call 988 on Colm and the movie would be over in five minutes.) Colm just wants to be left alone, although the priest he visits for confession asks after Colm’s “despair” a couple of times. We start to feel that, despite its pictorial beauty, the place itself has as much to do with this intractable duel of wills as anything else. People are isolated, cut off from where the action (and work) is. They see the same people every day, do and say the same things every day, thirsty for any scrap of scandalous news to introduce some static into the low hum of Inisherin’s energy. 

The Banshees of Inisherin is not a neat work, not an easy thing to resolve one’s feelings about (and will not, as I said, reward efforts to wrestle it to the deck and pin an interpretation on it). It’s sad, it’s sardonic, it’s insightful on the subject of toxic masculinity and how it causes and is caused by the soul-death of depression. The women either keep an eye out for the next departing boat or stay and morph into mordant crones. Men like Pádraic and Colm needed to leave a long time ago, but they settled into their surroundings and their usual hang-outs, and they’re spiritually as well as geographically stuck. We don’t know how their story ends, because neither do they.

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