'The Banshees of Inisherin' Is a Pitch-Black Delight

Martin McDonagh’s fourth feature film reunites Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in a fable about friendship

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Jack Hanson
Spoiler Warning

The Banshees of Inisherin presents itself as a fable, and from its first frames we enjoy the simplicity, the distillation and instruction, which that form promises, however well we might know its dark side. We soar down through welcoming skies onto an island off the West Coast of Ireland. It is a fictional island, though only just: Banshees was filmed on the largest of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, Inishmore; the smallest, a few miles south, is called Inisheer. The many animals of the island, though never quite verbal, are highly communicative, and possessed of a keen and effective intelligence, often guiding their human companions, or else standing in as emblems of a truth not yet fully realized. Among the characters, attire, affect, and dialogue all work together to enforce that sense that wherever you live, this is elsewhere. But at each of these markers, the film shows how the form pulls at its own seams, the fabulistic blending with the everyday in such subtle, easy movements that one begins to wonder whether the distinction between them is worth maintaining if it can be so easily crossed. It is, in other words, an enchanted world, but one in which enchantment offers deliverance neither from boredom nor from pain.

When we first encounter our protagonist, Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), he appears untroubled, strolling down a well-worn road, his expression and surroundings alike washed in a sense of peace, interrupted only momentarily by the distant rumble of cannon fire and wisps of smoke over a stretch of sea. Across the bay from the fictional island, the real civil war is in its final months. He continues on to a lonely looking house on the beach and knocks, calling for his best friend, Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), reminding him that it’s 2:00 pm, and time to go to the pub (this got a laugh from the audience, an indication of which side of the screen was more civilized). Colm, seen through the window, smoking at his hearth, does not respond, and Pádraic heads off on his own, disturbed.

When, a short while later, Colm tells Pádraic that he no longer wishes to be friends, word spreads, and the common refrain among the island’s cast of characters is to question Colm’s maturity. “What is he, twelve?” asks the impish Dominic, the local fool. Played by Barry Keoghan, who adds an almost unbearable tenderness to his usual manic derangement, the uncouth Dominic suffers terribly at the hands of his father, the island’s policeman, and is for Pádraic equal parts irritant, ward, and Jiminy Cricket. But against Colm’s sudden, blank, and persistent refusal, the islanders’ reactions are no less childish. Jonjo, the barman (Pat Shortt), asks Pádraic repeatedly, “Have ye been rowin’? Ye must have been rowin’,” as though this would explain everything. Siobhan (Kerry Condon), Pádraic’s frustrated, bookish sister, who seems to spend her days comforting her sensitive brother and shooing away the farm animals he tries to allow into the house, especially his beloved donkey, Jenny, confronts Colm, sputtering, “You can’t just all of a sudden stop being friends with a fella.” Without straying too much into caricature, Inisherin is an emotional Lilliput. Only Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), an aptly absurd harbinger of death in the form of a pale old lady who smokes a pipe under a dark, heavy cowl, seems unperturbed, even amused by this turn of events. Throughout the film, she appears again and again, cackling, nettling, and beckoning.

This basic structure repeats twice, with the stakes raised dramatically at each turn, as Colm’s darkly farcical threat to cut off his own finger every time Pádraic speaks to him becomes more extreme and less funny without ceasing to be, in some grim sense, a joke. Accordingly, the stated reason for Colm’s abandonment of Pádraic — that, having limited time left to him, he wishes to devote himself to his music and not the idle chat he gets from his former friend — intensifies in both clarity and absurdity as his responses to Pádraic’s persistent company become less assertions of will and more self-destructive convulsions. Colm is increasingly aware of his own spiral into self-negation, even as the film poses the question of how much one can really understand what one is doing, tarrying with a darkness that evades comprehension. Pádraic, whose childlike frustration and fear Farrell draws with extraordinary nuance and care, follows his friend into that darkness, first pleading with him to come back and eventually, the deeper they go, manifesting its violence in himself.

The initial neatness of the film’s conceit gives way to the paradoxical conditions of living, the compromises and sins that go into any decision that means anything.

Banshees is director Martin McDonagh’s fourth feature film, his second with the double act of Farrell and Gleeson. The first, In Bruges, concerns a pair of hitmen who, after Farrell’s character, Ray, botches a job in London by accidentally killing a little boy as well as the priest he was aiming for, are sent to hide out in the medieval Belgian city. Both the writing and the central performances received enormous praise, not least for the gallows humor which carries the narrative from the first line to the last, both delivered by Ray: from “After I killed them…,” to, “I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die.” In Bruges is also a fable, though somewhat looser in structure, set in the purgatorial tourist trap as Ray looks for a reason to live and Gleeson’s character, Ken, after a lifetime of contract killing, a way to die well. Suicide is a constant, looming threat, but the answers come, as it were, externally, with a romantic interest provided to Ray and a murderously principled boss to Ken, leaving the main characters not so much to take action as to embrace the path that was laid out for them. Ken dies so that Ray might live, and while the film ends uncertainly, love and sacrifice — the twin figure of self-giving — have closed out the existential question, and we leave Bruges knowing better than we did upon arrival.

Banshees is at once tighter in its narrative and suppler in its characterization, but it explores much the same terrain. The primary drama is bolstered by another layer of dilemmas, concerning Dominic’s hellish life under his physically (and, there is some indication, sexually) abusive father, as well as his preoccupation with Siobhan, who, in turn, is desperate to leave the island but dreads leaving her brother behind. Ultimately, both of these dilemmas are resolved conclusively but incidentally to the main action: Dominic, rejected by Siobhan and despairing of Pádraic’s descent into vengefulness, drowns himself in the bay, while Siobhan leaves for a job as a librarian on the mainland.

But the central narrative continues apace: when Pádraic attempts to force his way back into his friend’s life, Colm jumps ahead of his plan to go finger-by-finger and cuts off the remaining four on his left hand, leaving him unable to play the fiddle. When he throws the excised appendages at Pádraic’s door, poor Jenny finds and chokes to death on one of them. Pádraic, mad with grief, announces to Colm that he will burn his house down as revenge, whether Colm is in it or not. When he arrives at the house and sets it alight, the first shots of the film are replicated and intensified: Colm, through the darkened window, the ember of his cigarette now a single point in a gathering conflagration. Amidst this destruction, there is a moment of gentleness: Colm has remembered to leave his dog outside, and Pádraic faithfully scoops her up, assuring her that she has done nothing wrong. He takes her home, where, in the absence of Siobhan’s objections, the dog joins the rest of the animals by the hearth, the sweetness of the scene now seeming to rebuke Pádraic for his concession to forces bedeviling him. In the distance, the smoke from the blaze drifting into the sky like the cannons on the mainland, the fairy world of Inisherin now fully infiltrated by the failures of life.

But, then, life is not entirely a failure. On the road the next morning, the dog streaks away from Pádraic and we find Colm on the beach, maimed and soot-stained, but alive. The two men speak for a moment, Colm offering a warmth that has previously only been hinted at. He asks if they are even. Pádraic rejects the apparent peace offering, saying that only if he had stayed in the house would they have been even. Colm thanks him for looking after his dog, his one inviolable link to tenderness. “Any time,” says Pádraic, walking away, the bond between the men now firmly reestablished, if recast by pain, transgression, and loss. Affectionate or not, it is a true friendship.

The initial neatness of the film’s conceit gives way to the paradoxical conditions of living, the compromises and sins that go into any decision that means anything, even those we make in good faith, with the best of intentions. Colm tries to circumvent this human mess in an attempt at purity, the collateral damage of his friend’s broken heart a price he decides he is willing to pay. But as the film progresses it becomes clearer that we never know the consequences of our actions until they unfold, if even then, and the more we attempt to control our lives, the greater the range of unforeseeable possibilities, for worse and for better: Colm’s accidental killing of Pádraic’s pet is the catalyst to his own confrontation with the death he has been flirting with, it would seem, for years, both his self-actualization and his self-destruction hampered by the friend he had assumed he could do without.

Is this closure? Not really: none has come out of this drama unscathed. Some haven’t come out at all. Ends (mercifully or mercilessly, depending on your mood) are not endings. The clarity we do receive in life isn’t the close of questioning, but its renewal. Real purpose puts you back to the task of living, amidst everything and everyone so apparently superfluous, most of the mess right where you left it, if not made worse. But does anything of the fable remain, any hope of a world of unshaded light? Perhaps there can still be a message, a lesson, one that makes the task a bit easier to bear, the mess richer in significance. Yes, of course there’s a message, a few, in fact, and they bear repeating, over and again, like the shore break, which is sometimes gentle and sometimes harsh, and sometimes covers over the body of a neglected friend, or else bears your sister away, and may one day bear her back, though it will do so silently, since in all your walking you have ceased to hear it: be a pal, let the animals in the house, try not to get too scared, love deeply, forgive easily, don’t kill yourself, and don’t let anyone do it for you, either.

Jack Hanson is a writer living in New York.