Have you ever bought a warm cookie and a coffee on a cold autumn night just so you have something warm to grip as you walk home?
I haven’t looked at reviews for this movie so I have no idea if people liked it or not. The Banshees of Inisherin is the latest Martin McDonagh film, the director of a longtime favorite of mine: In Bruges, as well as Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. The film is not as chaotic and funny as his first two nor as confronting and topical as the last. It concerns a small island off the coast of Ireland (referred to here as the mainland) during what they refer to as the civil war, likely the war that led to the Partition just after WWI. The inciting incident is one Colm Doherty, local musician, deciding to stop talking to his longtime best friend Pádraic Súilleabháin, local dairy farmer. If you want my short opinion, it’s worth watching. There’s laughs but it can leave you feeling pretty bleak.
Spoilers ahead, ye be warned.
The marketing really played up the mystery of “Why does Colm stop talking to Pádraic?” but the film resolves the question fairly quickly. In Colm’s words: “I just don’t like ya anymore.” The truth is somewhat more complicated. I’m not sure many people are going to see this film so I’m going to basically spoil the whole plot here. Last chance.
Throughout the film, Colm is repeatedly trying to get Pádraic to leave him alone. He’s desperately trying to stop talking to him and instead focus on his music. When he isn’t being confronted, he’s standing by himself, staring at the sea, talking with other local musicians, and generally being pleasantly isolated. The village idiot says “It’s like a weight’s off his shoulders.” When he confesses his sins to the priest, he mentions pride but otherwise is mostly bothered by the fact that his best friend won’t stop having an existential crisis while he tries to get on with being bigger than the world around him.
Pádraic on the other hand finds his entire life spiraling apart. He suddenly finds his simple life being upended by the fact that his main source of social enrichment has completely seperated from him. Until now his life was great. He has a miniature donkey that he loves. He lives with his sister, who has her own problems that he’s mostly uninterested in. The biggest problem is has is that the village idiot, Dominic the youngest male we see on the island with the loudest mouth, won’t stop trying to make friends with him and the boy’s father, the local policeman, ignores him. He “never has news” as his main customer and town gossip complains.
Now, he suddenly realizes that he has been a burden to his best friend this whole time. The local pub keeper says “Colm’s always been more of a thinker…I’ve always thought of you as one of those Nice Guys.” Pádraic slowly realizes that other than his sister and Colm, Dominic is the only person interested in anything other than gossip from him. He realizes that he’s “dull” and even his sister doesn’t think of him as a good friend or confidant. The realization begins to dawn that being “Nice” isn’t actually a good thing, it means he is dismissed. He grasps so hard for Colm and the life he thought he had that Colm begins to escalate the situation.
See Colm is an artist, he dreams of being remembered. Pádraic constantly is trying to drag him back into what he sees as inaction. No matter what he does, his one ex-friend can’t seem to respect that he’s trying to devote his life to creating art and living an artist’s life with other artists. Instead, the local dairy farmer who “spent two hours talking about things [he] found in his pony’s shit” insists on keeping him contained to being “nice.” His new glorious evenings with women and musicians keep getting interrupted by the good ol’ boy he used to hang out with. He knows that nothing he says will actually convey the severity of how much the horror of dying of old age and irrelevance on a tiny island has gripped him. He knows that if it were up to Pádraic, they’d both die in twenty years in the same place they’re at. So he raises the stakes, he tells Pádraic that if he says anything to him, he’ll cut off his fiddle playing fingers. One for each time he talks to him.
Pádraic can’t grasp the severity of threat, and after another tearful confrontation, Colm throws his severed left index finger at Pádraic’s door.
I won’t keep going beat by beat here. But there are side plots about obnoxious Dominic and his cruel, socially grasping policeman father, about Pádraic’s bookish sister Siobhan finally escaping the island, and about the local spooky old woman Mrs. McCormick. By the end, Colm completes his song, he even spends time with the artists he wants to connect with. When he seems to be nearing his goal of recognition and transcendence, he softens his attitude towards his old friend, who then reveals that he actively hindered Colm by lying to one of the musicians in one of the most hilarious pitch black jokes of the story. Colm sees that all of his efforts are rewarded by Pádraic trying to drag him right back into the cozy life he’s been trying to escape. So in a fury of self importance, he cuts off the rest of his fingers to try and punish Pádraic and throws them at his front door one by one.
His old friend completely misses the gesture and couldn’t care less that now Colm can only conduct his beloved composition with the bloody stump of his fiddle hand, because Pádraic’s pet donkey chokes on one of the dramatically discarded digits and dies, finally killing any affection he had for him. Pádraic responds by burning down Colm’s house. Colm realizes he hasn’t communicated anything to Pádraic this whole time, that the farmer never understood. Pádraic is unable to communicate how much the loss of his donkey means to his former friend and seems doomed to spend the rest of his life hating him.
It’s a quiet tragedy, a tragedy of two men with completely different self images, who’s most treasured possessions are worthless to each other. It’s the tragedy of living in a small contained community where the only way to transcend the ambient misery is to completely alienate yourself from those who have supported you and made the miserable place tolerable. At the end, Siobhan writes to Pádraic and asks him to come live with her on the mainland “where it isn’t so mental” and he tells her everything is fine and that all his friends are in Inisherin. Even though at that point, he has nothing except a cold house and a blood grudge against Colm.
I’ve consumed quite a bit of Irish media: literature, poetry, film, etc. Much of it concerns the small miseries of living in a country that the rest of the world romanticizes but has been some flavor of impoverished for centuries. This one didn’t give me that feeling of that deep old world misery. It felt like a story that could have been told about a rust belt town, an old mining city, or a nearly abandoned factory town. It felt like being the kid on the bleachers, watching the beloved local sport and feeling nothing. It felt like being that kid for fifty years, nearing retirement, and realizing that everyone around you is completely fine with life and they will drag you into the same mass grave with a warm smile while you’ve been miserable the whole time for no reason.
The only person who finds happiness is Siobhan, who gets a job on the “mainland” and moves away. Before she does, she has a moment with Colm right after he cuts off his first finger.. It’s the only time outside of the music sequences where Colm seems to have any sort of happiness at all. He expects that she’ll understand how badly he wants to transcend the place because she’s the only one who understands what he’s doing. But she sees his idiotic performance for what it is, she knows he’s just as consumed with the place as her brother is. Ultimately they can’t connect for the same reason, and I think the film does a lot for itself by resisting the temptation to make their relationship more than it is. Yes they both want out, but Siobhan wants more people, a different context, while Colm would be happy if he stayed where he was at but with a better reputation and cooler friends.
Even so, Siobhan also spends most of the movie basically miserable, at one point the local policeman (a known kiddie fiddler by that point) yells at her that “no wonder no one else likes you” and there is no rebuttal. The only person she exchanges a kind word with the entire movie other than Pádraic is Mrs. McCormick, a local widow that everyone avoids. Their relationship is mostly obligatory and both view each other as charity visits, since she and Pádraic are orphans. Part of the reason she even can do the thing that saves her is that she has nothing to leave behind except her books and Pádraic.
It sticks with me how much the local pub is the center of life, the thing that makes the local’s meager existences interesting. Dominic, known dimwit, is isolated by being frequently banned from it, and regularly forced to leave because his abusive father doesn’t want him hanging around there. He fixates on Siobhan even though she’s much older than him because she’s the only one who doesn’t participate in the social scene, preferring to stay home and read books. Her leaving is the removal of the only potential social connection for him and the results are tragic.
I also didn’t know where to fit this in, but there is an undercurrent of homosexual tension happening that is so faint it only becomes obvious in one scene where a priest who serves as the only window into Colm’s inner thoughts hugely overreacts at the implication that he may have had “impure thoughts about men.” I’d need to watch the whole thing again to get a read on that, and it may be possible to read Pádraic and Colm’s relationship as serving as a replacement for Pádraic not having a romantic interest. But that’s a reading for another day, and I think leaving it so open ended is probably not only in keeping with the time period depicted but also avoiding opening an entire other can of worms in another story line.
It isn’t the sort of movie to have a moral, Colm’s self aggrandizement is both inevitable and also the thing that upends the entire order of his and Pádraic’s lives. It’s clear that he was being consumed with despair. So he wrote a song he called The Banshees of Inisherin and when Pádraic says there aren’t Banshees in Inisherin he says “I think there are, but they don’t have to scream anymore, I think they just sit back, observe, and wait.”