The Banshees of Inisherin

THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN is last year’s best picture nominated movie from writer/director Martin McDonagh, and I think my favorite from him so far. (The other best is his debut IN BRUGES, and he also did SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI). This one is set in 1923 in a small island village of Ireland, and concerns the simple topic of two old friends after one of them decides they shouldn’t have any contact with each other anymore. It’s not in response to some specific action, it’s a decision to redirect his life, and a rejection of the value of spending any time with this other person. It’s a sad movie and also a really funny one. Since it didn’t make me cry, despite my middle age status as an easy crier, I say it’s more funny than sad. You may disagree.

The rejected party is Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell, DEAD MAN DOWN), who opens the movie in comical obliviousness, walking into town saying hello to everybody he passes like it’s a damn Disney movie. There’s even a rainbow. But when he knocks on Colm (Brendan Gleeson, TURBULENCE)’s window Colm won’t acknowledge him, and later at the pub won’t sit with or talk to him. And after some pushing Colm tells him the friendship is over.

Pádraic can’t believe it, and figures he can fix it. He talks to the other guys at the bar about it. He talks to his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon, UNLEASHED), who he lives with, about it. He talks to a local crazy-eyed weirdo named Dominic (Barry Keoghan, THE GREEN KNIGHT) about it. Dominic is positive and supportive even though he has bigger problems of his own, such as being beaten and abused by his alcoholic cop dad (Gary Lydon, WAR HORSE).

Of course Pádraic also tries to talk to Colm about it, but it takes him a while to get anywhere. Colm has decided that since he’s getting up there in years now, any time he spends sitting around drinking beer and conversing with “dull” Pádraic is wasted, because it should be spent on creating music to leave behind as a legacy. Furthermore, any time he spends trying to explain this concept to Pádraic is just as wasted. So he makes a vow: for now on every time Pádraic tries to talk to him, Colm will cut off one of his own fingers with a pair of shears. Not fuckin around with his threats. Some heavy duty Demon’s Path samurai type shit.

I probly don’t need to tell you that Pádraic tries to talk to him anyway – figures going to his cottage to apologize to him won’t count as a violation – and sure enough he later hears a sound out front and it’s Colm pelting his door with a severed finger. Since Pádraic is kind of a doofus, he continues to make the same mistake. So things get even uglier, until both parties are making extreme ultimatums like this and going through with them.

There are some very layered moments, like when Colm sees Pádraic beaten by Dominic’s dad and helps him get back into his wagon to get home. Since he’s so stubborn about avoiding Pádraic at all costs the small gesture of sympathy becomes huge, but it also muddies things because Pádraic takes it as a return to friendship. In another of my favorite moments Pádraic drunkenly tells off Colm at the pub and then storms out, and Siobhán says, “You don’t need to do anything drastic. He won’t be botherin’ you no more.”

“That’s a shame,” Colm says. “That’s the most interesting he’s ever been. I think I like him again now.”

I don’t really know if it’s only a joke or kind of serious. It works either way. This is not the kind of movie where they’re gonna work everything out, and it never feels like it is. So I find it very moving any time some hint of admiration for Pádraic shines through anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever noticed an overlap between McDonagh and the Coen Brothers (though they share a favorite composer, Carter Burwell, and THREE BILLBOARDS starred Frances McDormand). Their movies don’t feel all that similar to me, but this one has a great quality that I associate with the Coens: a precise use of language where just the way they say things, the odd phrases they choose, can be laugh out loud funny. Like when Pádraic is upset to not be considered a “thinker” like Colm is, and the bartender reassures him by saying, “You’re more— what are you? You’re more one of life’s good guys.”

“You’re more one of life’s good guys, aye,” his other friend agrees.

Being “one of life’s good guys” becomes a theme, with Pádraic delivering a speech about the importance of “niceness,” and why his niceness is valuable to the world even though he can’t play violin or leave behind a legacy of musical compositions. It seems like a worthwhile philosophical discussion, but becomes more complicated when Pádraic’s jealousy over Colm making new friends leads him to do some actually really terrible things without even thinking about how they contradict his self image as a nice guy.

Dominic is both the funniest and the most tragic character. He always seems like he’s tuning into conversations from another dimension, and sometimes he’ll have some weird thing going on to distract him from his miserable life. I love the scene where he’s carrying around a wooden pole with a hook on the end of it. “Look at this I found,” he says. “A stick with a hook. What would you use it for, I wonder? To hook things that were the length of a stick away?”

Despite the heartbreak and bodily mutilation there’s something quirky and kinda magical about this place. Pádraic’s donkey Jenny and Colm’s dog are important characters. Pádraic argues with Siobhán about allowing animals inside the house. When an old neighbor or friend of their mother, Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton, RAWHEAD REX, THE COMMITMENTS, THE NORTHMAN), comes over to catch up with Siobhán, she straight up looks like a medieval witch, and later delivers a premonition of death. To my delight, she also shows up carrying the pole with the hook on it, and we get to find out what she uses it for.

So I was convinced THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN must be loosely based on some Irish folk tale. You’ve got a witch with a big hook, a fiddler with a bunch of weird masks in his house who cuts off his own fingers, you never know if banshees are gonna show up… I mean, come on. But I guess it’s not a folk tale. Maybe it will become one.

There’s probly some element of allegory about the civil war that was winding down at the time the movie is set. They occasionally notice flashes and bangs of distant violence across the water, and make small talk about it like it’s the weather. “A bad do” it’s called at one point. I’m not qualified to analyze how closely Pádraic and Colm’s escalating and unresolvable conflict resembles what happened in the war, but there are clearly meant to be parallels. Honestly I like it better not being about war – it has plenty to say about friendships, stubbornness, aging, kindness, and the need for a feeling of purpose. And by being so funny and so melancholic at the same time it’s a reminder to look for specks of joy even in your darkest days. That’s enough for me.


This entry was posted on Monday, February 6th, 2023 at 7:08 am and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs, Drama. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “The Banshees of Inisherin”

  1. This one reminded me of Waiting for Godot. Maybe it’s the Irish playwright connection. But it’s a tragicomedy about two guys who may never make it to their respective destinations. It doesn’t have the optimistic existentialism thing I like. It’s more of a… wistful nihilism. Bleak and mean but also sweet and funny.

  2. The casting was really the highlight for me here. It was fun to see Colin Farrell play up goodness and loyalty, qualities that made for a great sparring match against Gleeson’s morbidity. I think they would have made a great buddy cop duo. I also am not sure if this film was actually good. I had no revelatory takeaways. The burning house confused me. There was a war happening on the other side of that town which I was obviously out of step knowing about and it seemed like I was supposed to know what that war was about. This script said some really interesting things about trying to leave behind some kind of legacy, and how fallible the act of making art really is…was the music Colm was playing supposed to be good? I didn’t think it was. I also wasn’t sure if the film made that obvious; was he self aware of how shitty it was, and henceforth felt like cutting his fingers off wouldn’t do that much damage to his legacy anyway? That’s a funny and bleak thought.

  3. Really liked this one. I feel like maybe I missed some of what it was trying to say and whatnot, but still enjoyed it on my own terms. And Jenny is my choice for breakout star of 2022 (I was quite happy to hear Colin Farrell say she’s doing well during his Golden Globe acceptance speech.)

  4. This movie is fantastic. I’ve seen a number of McDonaugh’s plays and he has two others with similar themes…I actually thought this was an adaptation of one of his plays, it seems like it easily could be as his movies have similar tones but are pretty different. This one felt like his plays. But nope, it was written for the movies and kind of makes an informal trilogy with The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

  5. Loved this film but did find the allegory to the civil war a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary. It’s both tragic and incredibly funny. Kind of an inverse of another one of my 2022 faves, Everything Everywhere All At Once. That one is an almost ridiculously complicated story that boils down to very simple but true themes (life may be meaningless but we should all be kind and love each other and appreciate what we have) versus this one that is elementally simple plot but reveals all these complicated layers beneath.

  6. I agree that this is his best movie so far, I think, because of exactly what Muh said–it feels like his early plays. Like, he got over the novelty of making Hollywood movies and returned to the kind of material that brought his first successes. This movie is completely of a piece with his first plays–the Leenane trilogy, and the Aran Island trilogy.

    And whether or not this one was written for the movies… the third of his Aran plays was never produced, and it was called “The Banshees of Inisheer,” so this has to at least be an adaptation/rewrite, right?

    Anyway, I like his period pieces rather than his kinda glib modern crime stuff. Similar to the Coens, the past suits him well. I hope he doesn’t return to the present for another movie or two.

  7. “The Pillowman” is also great. He also wrote it before he got into movies but it’s not quite a period piece, either (unless it’s depicting the same period that Joseph K lived in).

  8. I was thinking he said this was an original piece for the movies. Once he said he’d not do an adaptation of one of his plays, he wanted the movies to feel like movies but that was back when he was doing crime stories.

  9. Looks like it is an original…he stole the title but noting else.

    “I Wanted To Work With The Boys Again”: Why Martin McDonagh Chose ‘In Bruges’ Stars Colin Farrell And Brendan Gleeson For ‘The Banshees Of Inisherin’

    On Inisherin a young woman wrestles with her conscience as she tries to decide between starting her own life on the mainland or remaining in service to her beloved brother in the home they share. O…

  10. The Civil War reference feels very clumsy and the language (“Therapy” is not a term that would have been uttered, let alone understood) is weirdly anachronistic, but it had a few laughs. There’s a good article on Slate explaining why quite a few Irish people (like myself) have an uneasy relationship with McDonagh’s work.

  11. (Maybe “uneasy” isn’t the right word. “Unsure” might be more on the mark.)

  12. This movie definitely made my list of “Films that Make Me Want to Drink 20 beers Tonight”.

  13. I thought I’d like this movie but it didn’t work for me. The one piece that did work was the setting. The island looked really great on film and it did make me think about what it would be like to live in such a small, out-of-the-way place like that. But I found the story to be really one-note and agonizingly repetitive. The cutting-off-the-fingers thing was just ridiculous, rendering Gleeson’s character totally implausible to me—a writer’s contrivance with visible seams. It’s also a little weird that the movie begins with the break-up, with no screen time ever showing them as compatible friends in the first place. I didn’t really feel invested in this lost friendship that one guy spends the whole movie trying to recover over and over again.

    The location was awesome, but I’m convinced that if this very same story were set in another, less telegenic location (like a more ordinary, drab small town) it would not have attracted the kind of attention it grabbed this season.

  14. I feel like the fingers thing is one of those totally tall-tale kind of stories. Like, it would sit well with a story about witches turning kids into pigs or something.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>