Comedic Destruction in “The Banshees of Inisherin”
Issue 6, Volume 113
“I just don’t like you anymore.”
“But that’s not true! You do like me!”
These seemingly insignificant lines jumpstart Martin McDonaugh’s latest film, The Banshees of Inisherin, and are the backbone of a conflict that escalates to Shakespearean heights.
Set on an island off the coast of Ireland in 1923, The Banshees of Inisherin explores preconceived notions of masculinity through an ever-escalating conflict between two former friends, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and Padraic (Colin Farrell). The film follows the fallout of a friendship that abruptly ends when Colm decides to cut ties with his lifelong drinking buddy Padraic because he’s “a bit too dull.” Padraic, a friendly and admittedly simple-minded fellow whose daily activities consist simply of herding sheep and drinking beer, is dumbfounded by this move and seeks further explanation from a frustrated Colm. This conflict bewilderingly escalates as both parties make increasingly irrational and violent decisions that end up having widespread negative consequences.
Despite the violence and grotesqueness of some of the events portrayed in the film, The Banshees of Inisherin is filled with plenty of humor that makes it a true delight to watch. This humor is built into the improbable, shocking plot, but is found as much in the characters as it is in the premise. The dialogue between the characters utilizes fragile tempers in service of humor to extremely effective results: everyone is filled with dry, Irish wit that spontaneously explodes into an entertaining series of “fecks” and “shites.”
Even with the abundance of comedic characters and moments, the ratio of comedy to tragedy achieved in the film strikes a careful balance, as the two components are interwoven while never diminishing the effect of the other. The plot may seem fundamentally outlandish due to its improbability, but (once accepted,) reveals itself to be a true tragedy. The Banshees of Inisherin displays a heartless collapse of friendship and explores the line between pettiness and legitimate, hateful revenge, as Colm and Padraic go from distancing themselves at the pub to committing acts of arson. The unusual pacing of this conflict mitigates the sense of absurdity, but the strangeness of these violent escalations is intentional and builds a conflict that reads as almost Shakespearean.
When viewed through this lens, The Banshees of Inisherin is a portrayal of the destructive nature of masculinity. When confronting Colm about his sudden coldness, Padraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) exclaims, “Oh great, another silent man on Inisherin.” Siobhan’s lines reveal a key message of the film: these battling men are self-absorbed, completely unaware of the destruction they’re causing each other and themselves. This message becomes obvious as the violence develops and the film ends unresolved, with both men still at odds with each other. This lack of resolution displays both the unending nature of the violent characteristics of masculinity and the cycles caused by the lack of proper communication. The focus on these pitfalls of masculinity is what gives The Banshees of Inisherin its timelessness, despite its isolated setting and time period; its unresolved ending and poignant themes reflect the characteristics of a nearly Shakespearean tragedy.
Despite the seemingly minimal setup of the film (as it only centers on a few key characters and places), the fictional island of Inisherin feels incredibly well-developed and grounded. The island has dynamic scenery conveyed in an aesthetically pleasing manner: small stone walls wind through the island, dividing plots of land, while massive waves pound against steep cliffs that mark Inisherin’s borders and heavy fog hangs over the island.
These pictorial decisions convey Inisherin’s sense of confinement, clearly displaying its barriers and rarely veering away from them, but the surrounding Inisherinites breathe life into the island and provide insight into the dynamic of the small community. Siobhan, played with the brilliant control of Kerry Condon, feels like the only true adult on the island, often mediating the two men’s arguments before leaving the isolation of the island for a job on the mainland. In addition, there is the local cop (Gary Lydon), who serves as the closest thing to a true antagonist, and his character provides insight into the island’s blind loyalty and general attitude toward the Irish Civil War. His troubled son, Dominic (Barry Keoghan), tries to replace Colm’s friendship, yet is unsuccessful as his childish perverseness constantly lands him in trouble. A witch-like widow prowls the island (Sheila Flitton), foretelling death and destruction. Pub-goers and townspeople populate the island. Animals run wild throughout the town, like Jenny, Padraic’s mini donkey, whom Siobhan demands to stay out of the house. Inisherin is painted as a small community—but not necessarily a close-knit one—spoiled by confinement, age, and mundanity.
The leads are the most thrilling performances to watch, as the actors ground their characters, imbuing them with a sense of humanity. Farrell delivers one of his most endearing performances as Padraic, delivering a dullness that exists narrowly outside of Padriac’s awareness, and then flawlessly transitioning into a vengeful flare that accompanies the upending of Padraic’s internal world as he begins to realize what everyone truly thinks of him. Gleeson plays Colm as a furious storm waiting to break, brooding from within a massive overcoat and donning a mask removed only because of the excitement of playing his fiddle at the pub. Colm cites prioritizing his art as a reason for the ending of his friendship with Padraic, but the viewer gets the sense of massive weariness from Colm; it isn’t really about his music or poetry; it’s about the idea that he can ‘make it,’ that he can entirely devote his energy to that pursuit. This idea leads him to a state of blind anger, as he ends up destroying his own chances of creating music by slowly cutting off his fingers in an effort to get Padraic to leave him alone. The incredible performances and incredible execution of their shifts in character both garner the viewers’ sympathies and frustrations, creating layers of emotion to nuance and complicate the viewers’ perceptions of the characters’ actions.
The Banshees of Inisherin truly succeeds on all fronts, creating a world out of a handful of characters and locations and unleashing a conflict both comedic in its original insignificance and tragic in its unfortunate poignance. The violent nature of masculinity and the consequences of silence are addressed and deliberated upon, thanks to incredible performances from the film’s leads and powerful storytelling. Because of this, The Banshees of Inisherin is one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking films of the year, and a definite must-watch for any fan of dark comedy.