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The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
A cautionary tale to be your best self
I did my best to avoid spoilers, but the path forward is always risky. What a statement (“the path forward is always risky”) for such a film! This analysis might be a bit scattered. My feelings about this film will never be resolute. Its nuances will stick with me forever. It is one of those stories that holds a never-ending well of wisdom.
The plot takes place 100 years ago on a fictional island off the shores of Ireland. The island is a small, peaceful refuge for a tiny population of farmers and tradespeople. Society, therefore, is limited, and there’s not much to do. The characters look at Ireland in the distance. The noise from the guns and bombs carries across the sea, but the civil war is a distant, incomprehensible problem from the view of their own shores. It’s a sad story in their newspaper. The brother and sister Padraic (Colin Farrell) and Siobhan (Kerry Condon) live together contentedly. They only argue, it seems, over whether to let the goat come inside the house. Siobhan is well-read and enjoys a cozy evening by a warm fire while she does needlework. Padraic is “nice,” a “good guy,” and very simple in his happiness. If he’s laughing with his best friend over a pint at the local pub, it’s a good, normal day and he wants nothing else. So what could possibly cut up this idyllic existence?
The short answer is, many things. One man’s existential crisis—loneliness, ennui, fear of extinction and nothingness—is a menace for the whole island. That man’s stubborn resistance to tranquility leads him to make war against one whom he regards as useless and forgettable. In a way, it’s a tale of two spiritual paths. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) seeks glory. He wants immortality above all, even peace. Padraic seeks only to be happy. Padraic walks down the country lane and says hello to everyone, regardless of what they can do for him. Colm is looking for company that will enhance and elevate his sense of importance and solidify him on the path to acclaim. Bizarrely, Colm is willing to cut off his fingers to keep Padraic at bay. The willingness to cut off his fingers is the best analogy for the old saying, “cut off your nose to spite your face,” that I’ve ever seen. The irony is that Colm wants to be a great fiddler.
If Padraic had a healthier outlook, he might recognize that all of this is Colm’s problem, not his. Somewhere inside, he must realize that, but he can’t overcome the pain of the rejection and the grief over the loss of the friendship. The pain of what he has lost ruins everything he still has.
That’s one of the saddest things about life—seeing people push away love in pursuit of the unrequited. My mom likes to say it’s the mixing up of love and “longing for love.” And I always liked how Woody Allen (in character as Alvy Singer, quoting Groucho Marx) put it: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” This movie seems to be widely classed as a dark comedy, but it hits me in a very serious way. I feel it crucially as a cautionary tale. Be kind to people, and, above all, don’t let the unkind cut up your inner peace. You can’t make someone be your friend. You can’t force your way into the club—not without causing havoc and perhaps breaking laws.
What is a banshee? The word conjures up images of shrieking elders and hysteria. According to Irish folklore, the appearance of a banshee is an omen of death. In the film, Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton) represents the banshee. She wanders the village and its outskirts, alarming everyone she meets with her silent and suggestive presence. She is feminine wisdom, a warning against a backdrop of toxic masculinity—the Civil War across the sea, the battle of egos between Padraic and Colm, the policeman’s brutality against his son (Dominic, played by Barry Keoghan) and then against Padraic, the homophobia expressed in the alternation between the priest (David Pearse) and Colm….
It’s not everyone who is aware of Mrs. McCormick as a banshee. Padraic and his sister do not seem to know her as such, but, discomfited by her, they avoid her whenever possible. They’ve already experienced death in the loss of their parents. Near the beginning of the film, Mrs. McCormick asks them how long it had been since their parents died. Siobhan replies that it had been almost eight years. Siobhan and Padraic don’t seem especially worried about death—not like Colm, who is preoccupied with his existential predicament. Colm doesn’t really fear death so much as he fears obscurity. His obsession with defiance of mortality makes him oblivious to the innocent lives around him. Similarly, Paedar’s brutality is the driving force behind his son Dominic’s desperation. These men—that is, Colm and Paedar—do not care about kindness, nor notice any of the subtleties of natural beauty.
Paedar the policeman doesn’t even know what’s going on in the Irish Civil War because the sides are no longer clearcut. In talking to Colm, he reveals his bloodlust in the anticipation of an execution. Yet he cannot remember which side of the war is executioner, nor which side is to be executed. “Wasn't it so much easier when we was all on the same side, and it was just the English we was killin'? I think it was. I preferred it.” It’s the simplistic perspective of Nazis—a clear scapegoat, a convenient target. Paedar’s bloodlust and Colm’s obsession with immortality unite in a double menace over the once peaceful island.
At one point, Padraic says to Colm, after Colm tells him the title of his completed song, which happens to be the title of the movie: “But there are no banshees on Inisherin.” Colm says he knows; he just likes “s-h” sounds.
You just like s-h sounds? What the hell? Colm expresses what seems like a willful obtuseness about anything that runs deeper than the surface of things. For a man who longs to be immortal, he exhibits a remarkably hollow worldview.
It took another person’s analysis to help me through this one. Jacob Krueger eloquently takes you through the plot of the movie, analyzing it as a screenwriter, and definitely disregarding any anxiety about spoilers. DO NOT PROCEED ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS.
Krueger (hosted of the podcast embedded above) describes the compelling action of the plot as Padraic’s relentless pursuit of what he wants—a resolution, or absolution, in the state of affairs between himself and his erstwhile friend. Krueger rightly points out that everyone, including you, the viewer from the outside, is aware of the hopelessness of the situation. Every other character knows that it is pointless—not to mention dangerous—for Padraic to further interaction with Colm. Even “the dumbest guy in the town”1 (Dominic) recognizes the futility of Padraic’s obsession. Krueger stresses: “[Writer/director] Martin McDonagh builds 55 pages of stakes just out of a character who wants something real bad, and who’s willing to take actions that most of us are not willing to take.”2
The overarching theme, as Krueger confirms, is escalation. It’s the escalation of tensions, of threats—from a guy just wanting to reclaim a friendship with a guy who wants none of it, to a guy who wants to fight to the death and will not let up until the enemy is dead. I appreciate how Krueger notices that Padraic and Colm reverse positions. When Padraic has lost everything, he is the one who wants nothing less than his enemy’s blood. His enemy, previously hellbent on self-destruction, turns into one who seeks tranquility and peace. Peace is no longer possible. Death, as foretold by the banshee, descends upon this hitherto harmonious island. Krueger shrewdly observes how the foreboding, ominous presence of Mrs. McCormick represents the banshee who never shrieks but rather stalks the islanders in silence. No wonder Padraic and Colm do not realize that there is an actual banshees in Inisherin. As Krueger points out in his podcast, Mrs. McCormick is more like the shadow of the old shrieking banshee that, historically, is Great Britain over Ireland. She’s there to remind the islanders—though they do not heed the warning—that the peace on Inisherin was only ever a mirage.
Krueger has much to say about allegories. Inisherin feels like an allegory for Ireland, as we see it torn apart by hubris, death, and destruction. McDonagh frames the story in the time period of the Irish Civil War in the 1920s. Is Padraic an allegory for the Irishman who was fine to remain part of the United Kingdom, as long as he could live simply among family and goats, and enjoy a pint at the pub with his friend? Colm, perhaps, is the Irishman who is willing to cut off his fingers if that’s what it takes to be detached, distinguished, and independent. Death is inevitable, but death, it seems, only comes to the innocent. Neither Colm nor Padraic will die, yet the struggle between them will not cease until one of them does die. The island around them—the animals, the townsfolk—must go on living (and dying) as the war rages between them.
There are so many allegories in this film, and each one is packed with layers upon layers of nuanced meaning. McDonagh gives us an intricately woven tale of friendship and enmity, of hubris and self-denial, that is applicable in both personal and geopolitical terms. One of the most impressive dialogues is that between the priest and Colm. As Krueger notes, it’s a great example of McDonagh’s tactic of avoiding over-sentimentality by injecting a humorous, hypocritical, and homophobic argument. Yet it’s not even that, brilliant though the device is for a screenwriter, which stands out most impressively for me. It is rather the exchange about Jenny, the goat, that hits me profoundly. The priest does not think God cares about goats. Colm laments that God’s lack of caring about goats—literally and allegorically, of course—might be precisely where God or humanity has gone so very wrong. Thus, we have a touch sentimentality—the likes of which filmmaker Derek Sitter censures in our interview—that McDonagh carefully counteracts with the aforementioned humor. In my interview with Derek Sitter, he compliments McDonagh for exactly the kind of restraint we see McDonagh use in this film—just a touch of sentimentality, here or there, the right amount, and never overdone, nor ever excessively drawn out. McDonagh hits you with it, and then he retreats.3
McDonagh does indeed hit you quite hard with multiple allegories and allusions. I was delighted to find that Krueger did not miss the contemporary relevance of these allegories. This film was released in 2022, premiering in Venice less than two years after the attempted insurrection on the Capitol in D.C. America has been torn apart by the divisive rhetoric and persistent lies of Donald Trump and his allies. I’m sorry to inject politics here, but it’s too apt to ignore. It is not the usual partisan strife when families and friendships are destroyed by a cult of personality in the highest office in the land. What more needs to be said? Can the comparison be more obvious?
Finally, I just want to write a few words about the music and the actors in the film. First, the music, which is embedded in the Spotify playlist above. The music weaves a treacherous road from disrupted tranquility to looming threat. It does so by a score composed by Carter Burwell. Flutes and cymbals, however melodious, constantly fill us with apprehension of what increasingly feels inevitable.
Second, the acting. I think Colin Farrell, with his role as Padraic, has achieved the apotheosis of an incredible career. He cuts you to the heart with the expressions in his eyes. The verbal blows inflicted by Brendan Gleeson land on Farrell’s face; in silent transparency, we can see the character’s pain.
Krueger, Jacob. “The Banshees of Inisherin: Allegory, Stakes, and Structure.” Write Your Screenplay podcast. Spotify. 26 January 2023.