Stories that transcend the time period of their settings by exploring the complexity of the human condition make them remarkable.
Even though this film’s rich historical context adds a layer of depth, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin has a delicious universality to it. Infused with historical metaphors, the film unravels its seemingly simple premise with not only complex characters and unpredictable storytelling, but also open-ended questions that provoke the audience’s self-reflection.
Set in the Irish isle of Inisherin – which was isolated from the 1923 Irish Civil War – the bloodshed on the mainland barely matters compared to the conflicts, bitterness and miseries within Inisherin. Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) may be the happiest man there: content with the mundanity of his life, he makes his living as a farmer, lives with his sensible, loving sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), and is well-liked among the islanders. Most important to him is his lifelong friendship with folk musician Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson). However, when Colm begins to ignore and push away Pádraic, telling Pádraic that he just doesn’t like him anymore, Pádraic is unable to accept the end of their friendship. He makes multiple unsuccessful attempts to repair the relationship while Siobhán and troubled islander Dominic (Barry Keoghan) try to de-escalate the situation. Colm eventually delivers a self-sabotaging ultimatum that causes Pádraic to break further and leads to consequences for both men.
We have all lost a friendship before. It’s an inevitable turn in our lives and it is bound to be painful. You’ve spent years building a relationship with the one person that’s been in your life and one day, they break things off. Yes – sometimes there are valid and/or terrible reasons why they cut ties, but whenever there’s no clear reason, it makes the pain worse because you’re left wondering. Did you do something wrong? Did something about your personality drive them away? There’s no way to rationalise it. It feels natural to try to salvage a relationship, but that’s never guaranteed. Attempts to salvage one can prevent you from moving on and lead to further pain, yet it’s a sign of caring – one that speaks to your humanity.
That heartbreak is reflected beautifully in Pádraic’s characterisation. Seeing him lose his happiness, innocence and niceness because of the cruelty he faces is upsetting, but his actions remain consistent with his naïve, childlike personality. He’s dull, kind-hearted and may be a bit much to handle, and when he hears the community talk about how dull he is, it’s heart-wrenching. Pádraic is a relatable character brought to life by Farrell’s masterful performance: he’s filled with genuine optimism but overwhelming sadness. His heartbreak is expressed subtly yet vividly through his despairing facial expressions, and his bitterness surfaces so that he reaches painful emotional highs.
McDonagh is more than interested in also exploring other angles. From an outside perspective, Colm’s actions are selfish and cruel, especially by bluntly and publicly pushing his friend away, fuelling rumours about their rift. He doesn’t make things better by associating with corrupt police officers like Dominic’s abusive father Peadar (Gary Lydon), whose interest in participating in the Civil War is to help execute treasonous people. However, McDonagh’s screenplay and Gleeson’s nuanced performance add an empathetic layer to Colm’s characterisation, no matter how irrational he is. His desire to leave behind a legacy by creating great music introduces a thematic complexity of what it means to be remembered. The Banshees of Inisherin isn’t wholly sympathetic to Colm and his inflated ego, but it portrays his depression with alarming accuracy as his misguided attempts at self-care add more pressure to his ambitions. Every time Pádraic tries to open up a conversation, it is a bitter reminder of the time he has wasted in Inisherin. In his quiet moments, he’s suffering with his struggles, and The Banshees of Inisherin makes it difficult to hate Colm as you learn more about his true character.
The brilliance of The Banshees of Inisherin lies not just within the multilayered conflict between Pádraic and Colm, but also in its willingness to explore its supporting characters. They don’t feel like plot devices. They feel like genuine, unique characters with personal issues. The real highlight is Pádraic’s sister Siobhán, the only character with common sense. She recognises the pointlessness of Pádraic and Colm’s conflict and the ugliness of Inisherin and its people. Fully independent and clever, she refuses to conform to Inisherin’s ways, which makes her a target to the islanders and contributes to her loneliness. She has aspirations outside Inisherin, but her dilemma involves leaving Pádraic behind. Even though she has to get real with Pádraic, she cares about him to the point of shielding him from hearsay, telling him he’s nice and not dull, despite ironically and comedically calling him dull in an argument with Colm. Siobhán feels like a fully formed character who isn’t solely contributing to the bitter male rivalry between Pádraic and Colm, and she’s played to perfection by Condon in a performance of dry humour, rationality and hidden vulnerability.
Another key player in Inisherin is misfit Dominic Kearney, whose behaviour appears weird, off-putting and mischievous. His presence threatens to detract from the narrative, but when we learn of his tragedies, including the constant abuse by his father that the islanders are aware of but never care about, we see him develop a moral contrast against Pádraic’s actions, he matters. Dominic’s characterisation is also affected by his unrequited crush on Siobhán and his attempts to socialise with her. Because of his difficulty to communicate, his awkward conversations unintentionally anger Siobhán, and the results are both hilarious and painful. When they share their final scene, there’s a surprisingly darker emotional weight that overcomes the comedy and sets the tone for The Banshees of Inisherin’s final act. It becomes clear Dominic is a harmless, traumatised boy with a good heart, whose circumstances will never improve. His arc comes to a melancholic end, realised by Keoghan’s ability to balance cringe humour with a sense of hidden sadness.
Because of how The Banshees of Inisherin spends time in its central setting, Inisherin too becomes a character. Judging from the gorgeous green lands and Catholic iconography throughout the island, shot brilliantly by DP Ben Davis, one would easily assume Inisherin to be a quiet, peaceful little isle because of how isolated it is from the Irish mainland, where the Civil War still prevails. If it’s not the distant cannon fire to worry about, it’s the cruelties and open grudges the people hold there, along with Inisherin’s repetition and insignificance of life, which the existential narrative structure successfully replicates. As talk begins to spread about Pádraic and Colm’s fallout, the relationship becomes a microcosm of the Irish Civil War. Conflicts happen for seemingly no reason; drastic attempts to make amends or have one’s own ways lead to such suffering, violence and madness that it disrupts the feigned peace. Trying to make amends becomes futile when more damage is done. There’s no point in pinning “true causes” when bloodshed has destroyed so much innocence.
The Banshees of Inisherin’s historical context adds Shakespearean qualities to its rich narrative. Its lack of resolution for its characters or questions makes The Banshees of Inisherin challenging to watch. The affair isn’t entirely bleak since its existential melancholy is balanced against dry humour that arises naturally from its character decisions and dialogue. Despite a handful of absurd elements, McDonagh finds clever ways to ground them with the heartbreaking reality of his characters, and even conjures the Irish folktale nature of his storytelling.
Even Carter Burwell’s musical score engages in the film’s dark sense of humour, largely distant from Irish culture but distinctly communicating with its characters’ psychological states. Burwell’s music sounds simple, childlike and innocuous whenever it focuses on Pádraic, reinforcing his increasing distress over Colm’s actions and inciting curiosity in the audience to dig deeper. Whenever The Banshees of Inisherin shifts focus to Colm, Burwell utilises fiddle-like compositions to highlight Colm’s genius and the pressure he faces. His folklike music aligns with the film’s tonal intentions, transitioning from quietly innocent to unbearably sad, and its genius sneaks up on you, much like the film itself, where every element is so well-tuned and detailed that it’s hard to pick out a major flaw.
The Banshees of Inisherin reflects Martin McDonagh’s finest work and his flawless approach to his material is bound to provoke subjective experiences among viewers. Some may be able to answer the personal existential questions it asks, while others will struggle. There are no right or wrong answers to find. That can only be decided by the viewer, and that answer is for themselves alone. It makes The Banshees of Inisherin ultimately haunting, but it is filled with humour, humanity, beauty, and truth to complement its emotional power. The Banshees of Inisherin has uniquely relatable situations, and it may make viewers reflect on painful pasts that they can’t move on from, but it delivers on many facets to create a quietly cathartic experience. And that’s a good thing.