Sunday, December 18, 2022


There are no literal "banshees" in Martin McDonagh's The Banshees of Inisherin, starring the duo (familiar from In Bruges), Brendan Gleeson (Colm) and Colin Farrell (Pádraic) - although there is a somewhat witch-like old woman who hovers around as a suitably scary prophet of doom, presumably fulfilling the purported traditional role of ancient banshees, a warning that this isn't going to end well.

The Banshees of Inisherin is hardly holiday fare. Yet, despite the barely pronounceable names and its stark physical setting, this is a strangely universal film about the perils of friendship gone wrong, about mediocrity and despair, and about how quickly and dangerously conflict can escalate. 

The film is set in 1923 against the background of the Irish Civil War, although, if we were not told that explicitly, we would hardly have any idea, so seemingly isolated and turned in on itself is life on Inisherin island. Some have seen the absurd and pointless conflict between the two former friends as a metaphor of sorts for the absurd and pointless conflict that was the Irish Civil War, but one would have to bring that sensibility with one to the movie, since nowhere does the film explicitly explain the Civil War. It is just there in the background as a larger-stage example of neighbors turning each other into enemies, with little or no obvious benefit to either.

The film is beautifully executed, the scenery is stark but beautiful in an exotic sort of way, and the acting is superb, all of which more than compensates for the unattractive personalities being portrayed. It is hard to think of anyone on the entire island who is particularly likable - apart from Pádraic's clearly much smarter sister, Siobhán, who finally has the good sense to escape the claustrophobic limits of life on the island to move to the mainland, where (war or no war) life seems somewhat more promising.

The story revolves around two long-time friends who customarily went together each afternoon to the local pub, but whose friendship comes to a sudden and somewhat catastrophic end. Of the two, Pádraic is a plain, good-hearted, "nice" fellow, while his friend Colm considers himself a somewhat more serious sort of person, apparently because he is a musician. Colm cruelly - and, at least at first, inexplicably - cuts off the friendship, which leads seemingly inexorably to an escalating series of mutually destructive responses on the part of each of them. All this strange behavior is set against the background of gossipy village life in which everyone knows everyone else's business. In the end, the conflict transforms the "nice" Pádraic into something quite sinister, having already revealed Colm himself as strangely sinister in his own bizarre way.  Siobhán finds liberation, but one suspects that almost everyone else (apart from one other character who dies) remains more or less the same. 

Curiously, Colm is occasionally categorized as "depressed," which sounds to my much later, 21st-century ear as somewhat anachronistic for an early 20th-century rural sensibility. (In confession, the priest refers to Colm's "despair," which sounds more likely.) In any case, it is 1923 Ireland. So crosses and a large stone statue of Our Lady mark major spots on the island. While religion doesn't seem to matter much the rest of the week, everyone makes it to Mass on Sunday - at the local church served by a priest who ferries over from the mainland. The priest is probably intended to be seen as typical of his type. In any case, he seems unable to help any of his suffering flock transcend the banality of their lives and the bad behavior that life in such a community appears to inspire.

The one thing that is supposedly attractive about such small gemeinshaft communities is that they are actual, face-to-face communities. People are directly connected to one another and ought, therefore, to be more deeply engaged with one another and care about one another. Yet, for the most part, such fellow-feeling seems more absent than present. Even so, Colm's offense against Pádraic has to seem like a catastrophic offense against whatever community there is on that stark island. Telling Colm his behavior, while not sinful, is not "nice" (as the priest does) fits in with the flow of the film, but ultimately minimizes the moral failure seemingly endemic to life in such a community.

The film is a beautifully made, skillful portrayal of mostly unsympathetic characters in an even less likable setting, acting out universal human failings.

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