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.
INDIANA JONES AND THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN— 𝗩É𝗥𝗡 (@outlawvern) January 15, 2023
Left: Martin McDonagh's THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN trailer— 𝗩É𝗥𝗡 (@outlawvern) August 4, 2022
Right: LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III teaser pic.twitter.com/3gcaiinROF
February 6th, 2023 at 8:55 am
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.