Broken Friendship: Banshees of Inisherin by Martin McDonagh

by Daniel Garrett Volume 27 Issue 11-12/Volume 28 Issue 1 / January 2024 18 minutes (4268 words)

Banshees of Inisherin (2022) (photo source, Disney Pictures)

“And in truth, what are these things I scribble, other than grotesques and monstrous bodies, made of various parts, without any certain figure, or any other than accidental order, coherence, or proportion?”
—Montaigne, “On Friendship”

“If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I,” wrote the great essayist Montaigne (1533 – 1592) in his remarks about friendship, inspired by his friendship for and with Etienne de la Boetie (1530 – 1563), a French magistrate who himself wrote on freedom and servitude. A figure of the Renaissance, Michel Eyquem, the Lord of Montaigne, a judge, legislator, and writer, was with the painters Leonardo and Michelangelo, the scientists Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo, the political philosopher Machiavelli, an embodiment of the accomplishments of worldly culture, of civilization. Yet, Montaigne, a man of public service, and a husband and father, found refuge in withdrawal from society, in reading, thinking, and writing, and he responded to social contradictions and shaken institutions by confirming what seemed sound, beginning with his own personal perceptions. In Montaigne’s essay “On Friendship” he saw a difference between ordinary friendship, one rooted in practicalities, such as self-interest, and a true friendship, which was more indefinable, spiritual, indivisible. I recall reading Montaigne’s essay when I was younger, and sharing it with friends—and with my Cultural Politics Discussion Group—and I was surprised to be told that Montaigne’s regard for friendship was idealistic. Was it?

Banshees of Inisherin (2022), a strange, poetic, truthful film, is about creativity diminished by routine, and the rebirth of imaginative possibility leading to the dissolution of an ordinary friendship. The story is a small drama in a time of larger trouble: the Irish war for independence against Britain—the Anglo-Irish war—was January 21, 1919 through July 11, 1921; and the Irish civil war June 28, 1922 through May 24, 1923. Banshees of Inisherin begins, set in early 1920s western Ireland, on an island, with a beautiful landscape, song, and Padraic (Colin Farrell) walking through the seaside pastoral village, past a religious statue (Mary), to visit a friend’s small house, where he, Padraic (pronounced Pawrick), gazes through the window and asks his friend if he’s coming to the pub—and his friend ignores him. His friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson), who is sitting down, smoking, ignores the inquiring man, Padraic, with whom he has spent hours and hours. Padraic returns home, where his sister is putting out laundry, and seeing him there, and bewildered, asks Padraic if he and Colm have been rowing (arguing), and Padraic says No, he does not think so. She, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), says, “Maybe he doesn’t like you anymore,” joking. At the local pub, the bartender asks about Colm when he sees the solitary Padraic, so used to seeing the two men together, and then the bartender asks if Padraic and Colm have been arguing. Padraic says, “No,” although Colm’s behavior suggests rowing; and Padraic is unaware of any disagreement. Padraic goes back to Colm’s house, stops at the window, and there is music playing but Padraic sees no one and goes inside, looks around. Colm is walking outside alone, going to the pub alone. Padraic arrives at the pub, and Colm tells Padraic to sit somewhere else, not with him: “I just don’t like you no more,” Colm says. Padraic questions that. Colm leaves Padraic sitting alone. Their connection—although now broken—seems perceptible.

The two actors, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, worked together in In Bruges (2008), directed by Martin McDonagh. Colin Farrell, a handsome and wonderfully intense (sometimes surprisingly mad) actor, has been in Tigerland (2000), Hart’s War (2001), Minority Report (2002), A Home at the End of the World (2004), Alexander (2004), The New World (2005), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), The Way Back (2010), The Lobster (2015), and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). I remember taking appreciative notice of him in Hart’s War, and being impressed that he held his own with Tom Cruise in Minority Report, and liking his soulful presence in The New World. Farrell was very effective—and a good dancer—in After Yang (2021), a film about family and artificial companionship.

“I haven’t got a pretty face,” Brendan Gleeson told Steve Rose of The Guardian (May 24, 2022), for an article that recounted that Gleeson had worked with “Spielberg, Scorsese, Anthony Minghella, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle, the Coen brothers, you name it.” Indeed, some of Gleeson’s films over a decades-long career include The Field (1990), Far and Away (1992), Braveheart (1995), Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), 28 Days Later (2002), Cold Mountain (2003), Troy (2004), Green Zone (2009), Albert Nobbs (2011), Suffragette (2015) and various Harry Potter films. He was impressive in Calvary (2014), and amusing, with Don Cheadle, in The Guard (2011). Gleeson won an Emmy award for playing Winston Churchill in Into the Storm (2009); and received a Golden Globe nomination for playing Donald Trump in The Comey Rule (2020). (I thought he captured Trump’s self-centered disturbed gloominess but not the man’s more vaudevillian impulses.) Together with Colin Farrell in the film In Bruges, a Martin McDonagh black comedy, Farrell and Gleeson played Irish hit men, in Belgium following a botched assassination; and the film was popular with critics and audiences, admired for its grit, style, substance, and wit.

There have been many films featuring Irish characters in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and America—I have a special fondness for Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and for The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006). The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), directed by Ken Loach, is about the early 1920s Irish war for independence, and focuses on Country Cork Brothers, played by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney, who join the Irish Republican Army to fight against Britain—and it’s a beautiful film containing an excruciating torture scene. Another Ken Loach film, Jimmy’s Hall, starring Barry Ward, about Irish communist (Revolutionary Workers Group leader) Jimmy Gralton (1886-1945), who built a hall—first used for education and social events, as well as a local court to settle land disputes—until Gralton, during the 1920s Irish civil war, goes to America, then returns in 1932 to Ireland, and reopens the hall, which priests speak against as a den of sin, before Gralton, for his political activities, is deported to America in 1933.

Films featuring the Irish. There are similarities to be found in village life wherever it occurs—small settlements organized around families and farms and small institutions, such as church, school, and market, sometimes with a central square or post office or sea port or transportation hub. People tend to be intimate with each other’s personalities and stories—their secrets are not secrets. The references are likely to be local rather than national or worldly. Ireland is a unique place, but many of its counties and towns share those village traits. (Dublin, now, is the only city in Ireland with a population of more than a million people; and Belfast has about 580,000 people and Cork almost 200,000.) Some of the films featuring Irish characters, places, or themes, include: Angela’s Ashes (1999), Bloody Sunday (2002), Breakfast on Pluto (2005), Brooklyn (2015), The Commitments (1991), Good Vibrations (2012), Handsome Devil (2016), Hunger (2008), In the Name of the Father (1993), Intermission (2003), Into the West (1992), Leap Year (2010), The Lobster (2015), Michael Collins (1996), My Left Foot (1989), Once (2006), Philomena (2013), P.S. I Love You (2007), The Secret of the Kells (2009), Sing Street (2016), The Snapper (1993), Song of the Sea (2014), The Van (1996), and Waking Ned (1998).

Here, in Banshees of Inisherin, Farrell and Gleeson explore an ordinary male friendship that comes to an unexpected although understandable end—like a lullaby that turns into a lament. Ignored by Colm (Gleeson), Padraic (Farrell) talks to a local youth, Dominic (Barry Keoghan); and Padraic’s mood is a bit spiky, as he is bothered by Colm’s new attitude and Dominic says that Padraic is behaving “awful unusual.” Padraic, at home, is questioned by his sister, “What’s happening in the paper?” she asks. “Just civil wars,” he says. The war of arms is between Irish nationalists (one supported a treaty with Britain, the other felt the treaty a betrayal). Taking war for granted is almost funny—except that is the way most of us are: there is usually one war, or another, usually small, in some foreign place, going on—but even local wars can be ignored to an extent. Siobhan (Condon) is expecting a visitor, an old, black-shrouded woman, Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), an observant, honest, but ghoulish woman. Padraic is usually out, and Siobhan is having the woman there for company. There is a rude honesty among these simple people—and Padraic says that his sister usually avoids the old lady in front of the old lady (suggesting that Siobhan may be lonely).

Colm (Gleeson), a good fiddler, play music at the local pub, and his music is warmly received by the women and men there. Padraic (Farrell) and Dominic (Keoghan) sit together. Padraic admits that Colm does not want to be friends with him anymore. “What is he, twelve?” asks Dominic. They go to Dominic’s house, where Dominic’s father is asleep, possibly drunk, and naked in a chair, which Dominic does not seem surprised by, which Padraic takes in stride. The two, Padraic and Dominic, drink outside; and Dominic says that he is against war and soap. Dominic asks about Padraic’s sister Siobhan. Padraic says that she likes reading. Dominic asks if Padraic has seen Siobhan with no clothes on, a peculiar question—suggesting Dominic’s own peculiar family dynamic. Dominic says Colm looked relieved when performing at the pub earlier, as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Was the habit a friendship between Colm and Padraic a gift or a burden? Banshees allows us to see friendship may be a burden.

“McDonagh’s first film, the Pinteresque hitman piece In Bruges, was released in 2008, and The Banshees of Inisherin reunites the British-Irish playwright and filmmaker with its two leading men: Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Both actors have been busy in the intervening 14 years, but watching them here, it’s as if McDonagh has been maturing them underground all this time like two cave-aged cheeses, until their rinds had thickened and whiffs sufficiently complexified to do justice to this script,” wrote Robbie Collin in The Telegraph (December 22, 2022).

Martin McDonagh, the son of a County Galway father, writer John Michael McDonagh, and a County Sligo mother, is known for the absurdist dark humor of his plays, such as The Beauty Queen of Leeane (1996), The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996), A Skull in Connemara (1997), The Lonesome West (1997), The Pillowman (2003), A Behanding in Spokane (2010), Hangmen (2015), and A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter (2018). His foray into film is becoming as remarkable, with In Bruges (2008), Seven Psychopaths (2012), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017), and Banshees (2022). McDonagh has talked with writer David Sims about liking the sadness of both In Bruges and Banshees (The Atlantic, October 22, 2022). As McDonagh’s career grows, it becomes more and more natural to speak his name in the same conversations as those discussing other distinguished Irish writers: Brendan Behan, Eavan Boland, Cecil Day-Lewis, Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats.

Padraic (Ferrell) takes his cattle—he says “cows” (are they all female?)—past Colm’s place. Padraic asks Colm (Gleeson) if his new distance has been an April Fool’s joke, but Colm does not answer. Padraic, later, shaves, suggesting his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) visit the pub for a sherry; and she says that she might. He asks about her book; and she says that it is good but sad—and he suggests not reading a sad book as it might make her sad, an obviously simplistic response, although not untrue. She asks if Padraic ever gets lonely—and he is mystified by the question: “What’s the matter with everybody?” he wonders.

Padraic knocks on Colm’s house door, but then sees that Colm has walked off with his black and white dog, going off to the pub alone. Padraic goes to join Colm’s table but Colm says he wants quiet time; and, Colm says that Padraic may have nothing better to do, but Colm has written part of a song and he wants to write more. If he had spent more time with Padraic, listening to his nonsense, he would not have written it.

Padraic (Ferrell) goes outside to sit, and, Colm (Gleeson) follows him to explain himself: he feels that time is slipping away, and he wants to spend time thinking and composing and not listening to Padraic’s dull talk. Padraic recently spent two hours talking about what he found in his donkey’s excrement. “Padraic (Colin Farrell) comes across as a slightly less goofy Forrest Gump in the Banshees of Inisherin. As sincere and honest as Forrest, and also possessing below-average intelligence, he too wears his heart on his sleeve and his shirt buttoned to the collar,” began John Lumsden’s February 9, 2023 Pop Matters appreciation of the film, noting its witty dialogue and the irrational forces—during a time of war—that seem to drive many of its characters. Is the fundamental human condition absurd, devoid of purpose? Certainly, if the best a man can do is discuss his donkey’s bowel movements, one might think that.

Siobhan (Kerry Condon), after seeing her brother’s distress, confronts Colm (Gleeson); and Colm says that Padraic (Farrell) is dull—she says that he always has been dull—what’s changed? “I have,” says Colm, who says he wants peace—peace in his heart. Siobhan tells her brother that he, Padraic, may be a nice person, but Colm may be depressed. “Why can’t he push it down like the rest of us?” asks Padraic. Siobhan observes, is clear-headed, but she only says some of what she thinks; and, as played by Kerry Condon, what she says is enough. I enjoyed Condon here, as I did in the Last Station (2009), where she played a rather androgynous figure; and although Condon was featured in Angela’s Ashes (1999), Intermission (2003), Dom Hemingway (2013), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Three Billboards (2017) and various Avengers’ movies (2015, 2018, 2019)—I feel as if I have not seen her enough.

On Inisherin, the western isle invented for this film, a boat arrives, with a priest, allowing for a church service. On their way to church, Padraic (Farrell) and Siobhan (Condon), in their horse-drawn wagon, see a bruised Dominic (Barry Keoghan) on the road, having been beaten by his father, and Dominic asks if he might stay with the siblings for the night. After the church service, Padraic mention’s Colm’s distance to the priest; and after Colm (Gleeson) confesses his mundane sins the priest asks him about not speaking to Padraic—and the priest and Colm argue. Colm tells Padraic to stop bothering him; and asserts that if Padraic keeps bothering him, Colm will cut off a finger and give it to Padraic, a demonstration of annoyance and a symbol of the vital stuff Padraic is taking from him. (Other listening men in the pub are shocked.)

Dominic (Barry Keoghan), eating with, and spending the night in the cottage, finds Padraic (Farrell) and Siobhan (Condon) mopey, and complains; but tries, badly, to flirt with Siobhan. Dominic is a figure of amusement whose story has a darker twist; and played by Barry Keoghan, who has been in King of the Travellers (2012), Mammal (2016), Dunkirk (2017), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Calm with Horses (2019), and The Green Knight (2021). Dominic’s lostness first seems dumb and sweet—and it is only in retrospect that most of us are likely to understand his true floundering. In small towns and villages, many people flounder—without a language for their experiences, without hope for transcendence.

Padraic (Farrell), in the village, delivers milk; and stops by the local store. The woman store owner asks about news. The policeman, Dominic’s father, comes in and gives her some: a man fell in the lake; another was involved in domestic murder. The policeman and Padraic exchange hostile words—and Padraic alludes to Dominic’s father beating him, and the man follows Padraic outside and hits him. Colm (Gleeson), seeing this, and without talking, helps Padraic into Padraic’s wagon, climbs aboard, takes the reins, and guides the wagon. Padraic cries. Colm leaves Padraic with the reins in his hands, and goes on his own path home. It is an act of friendship by someone who is no longer a friend.

Friendships vary. Some men have many—some few. Frequently, men’s friendships focus on business, drinking, sports, and talk about women. Sometimes more. An Irish Examiner article by Mary Cate Smith on the durability of male friendship, citing examples from boyhood on, sharing adventures and music, and surviving through loss—whether death or divorce—and relishing connections that can provide listening, understanding, support, and, sometimes, healing. “When men find a comfortable style of clothes—jeans and a t-shirt—they live in that for the rest of their lives. I think it might be the same where friends are concerned. You find somebody that fits you and you stick with that person for the rest of your life” (November 8, 2022). In America, many men, especially as they age, seem to have fewer and fewer friends (I know I do, having learned not only that not all friendships are durable, but that we ourselves are not, or do not become, the people we hope to be). The Survey Center of American Life, an American Enterprise Institute project, not long ago reported that “Thirty years ago, a majority of men (55 percent) reported having at least six close friends. Today, that number has been cut in half. Slightly more than one in four (27 percent) men have six or more close friends today. Fifteen percent of men have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990” (Daniel Cox, “Men’s Social Circles are Shrinking,” online June 29, 2021).

Colm (Brendan Gleeson), in Banshees of Inisherin, wants his solitude. Solitude can be a strength. There are differences to be found when examining solitude, isolation, and loneliness: in solitude, one can know one’s self, cultivate one’s abilities and interests. Isolation is less about who one is, and what one has, than it is about what one does not have—a lack of company or knowledge or resources. Loneliness is the sense of loss at being alone, isolated, longing for what is missing. Colm (Gleeson) fiddles near the beach—sitting, his dog near him, while Padraic (Farrell) is at his own house, in the company of his small donkey. The policeman, later, at the pub with Colm, says that he is going to take a boat to the mainland and get extra work as an executioner, something to do with the civil war, although he cannot recall who will be executed. Colm plays music with other musicians, a very good group; and Padraic, who has prided himself on being nice, sees that—and, then, drunk, goes to where the policeman and Colm are sitting together and insults them. Dominic goes to the cottage to get Siobhan to intercede. Padraic asserts his own niceness—and wonders whether Colm was nice or only thought to be nice. “Nice doesn’t last, but music and painting last,” says Colm, who, later, says that Padraic’s insults were the most interesting he has been.

Siobhan (Condon) picks up a letter from the mail drop at the store, and the woman shopkeeper, a nosey woman—who, desperate for news, opened Siobhan’s letter—asks if it is a job offer from a mainland library. The woman is bitter that Siobhan never shares any news.

Padraic walks to Colm on the beach, to apologize. “Why can’t you just leave me alone?” asks Colm. (This ordinary male friendship, so long-lasting, so routine, can sound a bit like a lover’s quarrel.) Colm visits Padraic’s home, knocks on the door, and walks away, having left a cut bloody finger as a gift—a promise fulfilled. The act moves the film onto a new level, that of the expressionistic, the grotesque, even the tragic. “Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s brilliantly crafted film offers a master’s class in pacing, with each successive scene building on the previous one until it has grown from a small, sweet Irish tale into a pitch-black, gut-punch of a tragicomedy,” wrote Mike Scott in the Times-Picayune, naming Banshees one of the year’s ten best films, along with Everything Everywhere All at Once, Emancipation, The Northman, and Women Talking. (December 29, 2022).

Colm (Gleeson), his dog licking his bloody finger stump, then plays his fiddle at home. Padraic (Farrell) wants to box and return the finger; and Siobhan (Condon) says he should not do that. She goes to return the finger—hearing civil war gunshots on the walk to Colm—and she talks to Colm, who is polite to her. Colm says that he wants silence, that her brother is boring. “You’re all boring,” she says. He asks her about what she knows and feels, recognizing her as a thoughtful person, aware of the existential dread he is aware of.

Padraic sees Colm with a visiting musician, and is jealous; and Padraic, jealous, lies to the man, claiming Padraic has received a message about an emergency involving the musician’s family and that the visitor must return home. The distraught musician leaves. Is the jealousy a sign of deep affection? Is the severing of Colm’s tie with a new acquaintance a sign of the limits of that affection? In Montaigne’s “On Friendship,” Montaigne stated, “Common friendships will admit of division; one may love the beauty of this person, the good-humour of that, the liberality of a third, the paternal affection of a fourth, the fraternal love of a fifth, and so of the rest: but this friendship that possesses the whole soul, and there rules and sways with an absolute sovereignty, cannot possibly admit of a rival. If two at the same time should call to you for succour, to which of them would you run? Should they require of you contrary offices, how could you serve them both?” (The full text of “On Friendship” is generally available, printed and online.)

Is there no one else with whom Padraic might become friends? Small settlements and towns, villages, are inquisitive, imposing, despite their assumed hospitalities. Patterns are easily set. When Siobhan rebuffs the policeman’s curiosity, he tells her that it is no wonder that no one likes her. She, rebuffing him, has refused to participated in the sharing—the gossip, the mutual mindless assurances of acceptance and reciprocity—on the island. She, at home, in bed, cries.
Dominic, unfortunately, encourages Padraic to try another tack with Colm, to be more assertive, less beseeching; and Padraic confesses to Dominic about lying to the musician—which Dominic, disappointed, thinks mean, making Padraic as mean as other islanders.

Colm (Gleeson), at home, dances with his dog, having completed a song. Padraic (Farrell) interrupts, insulting him, his new tack; and the two men argue again. Padraic attempts small talk, but, then admits, he drove away the visiting musician. Padraic goes to the pub to wait for Colm, madly assuming he has restored some balance in their relationship. Siobhan (Condon), at the pub, wants to talk to Padraic about her plan to leave the island for a new job, but sees Padraic waiting, and asks what he is doing. (Does he not understand Colm’s disturbance and threat?) Colm cuts more of his fingers off, throwing them at Padraic’s door. Padraic and Siobhan on the road home see Colm on the road, his cut hand—his one fingerless hand. Could an image be more shocking? Colm is a one-man walking theater of cruelty.

Siobhan (Condon) packs to leave the island. She says that all she has, other than her brother, are books, and asks him to take care of them. She takes the boat, waves goodbye. Padraic (Farrell) finds that his donkey, having tried to eat Colm’s fat fingers, has choked and died. Padraic, angry and miserable, threatens to set fire Colm’s house the next day at the precise hour at which they used to go to the pub—and he does burn the house, declaring that their battle goes on. Michel Eyquem, the Lord of Montaigne, continued his friendship for Etienne de la Boetie after the man had died; but, here, love has become hate.

(Article completed February 17, 2023)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 27 Issue 11-12/Volume 28 Issue 1 / January 2024 Film Reviews   brendan gleeson   colin farrell   irish cinema   martin mcdonagh