The Banshees of Inisherin Review | An Ambivalent Irish Quasi-Tragicomedy
Banshees of Inisherin subverts initial expectations, boldly asking a salient question about human friendships
As if a magnetic pull, I was first really intrigued and taken in by the film’s title. I had imagined the made-up island name ‘Inisherin’ to have been intentionally crafted to inspire an image of sinister portent, done in view of holistically building up a rather compelling Banshee notion. Soon enough, you realize that this is not a film about such and so. While the film did have sparse degrees of macabre themes, The Banshees of Inisherin is a masterfully undemanding two-hours, a far more lucid showing than the title may have led you to preemptively surmise.
Martin McDonagh’s latest film The Banshees of Inisherin poses a fundamental question upon which the entire movie rests on—a question that initially appears simple, yet evolves to be quite puzzling over time; what would you do if tomorrow, you walked up to your closest friend in the world and he, with all the serious somberness a man’s face could muster, flat out refuses to be your friend anymore?
It proves to be a situation that can be really awkward to deal with, “What do you mean he doesn’t want to be your best friend anymore?” Unsurprisingly, the simple matter of how friendships typically work suggests that people do not just simply stop being best friends with one another, especially when ended abruptly unprovoked and lacking any conflict whatsoever.
The all-important question instigates a great deal of introspection, for any of us human viewers no less, or here for Pádraic (played by Colin Farrel) who is condemned to pensively ponder this newfound predicament by his now ex-best friend Colm (played by Brendan Gleeson). Colm purely wants one thing: to stop befriending Pádraic.
It is hinted that it all stems from Colm’s ‘despair’ (word of choice when he goes to confess weekly at the local Church) whereby Colm feels as if his time is gently-but-invariably slipping away. To reinvigorate his sense of self and purpose, Colm resolves to do something creative with whatever years he has left, vying to make the most out of every second. Not by ticking off a range of items on a bucket list, he instead does so by harshly deciding to cut Pádraic out of his life, retaliating that he has been subjected to the mundane “aimless chatting” of “a limited man”, hoping to devote his time and mind space to his violin fiddling instead.
Taking his introspective sentence even further, Pádraic hears firsthand that Colm judges him to be a dull man. Everyone around them softly hints at agreeing with Colm, “You’re more like one of life’s good guys” is the consolation compliment offered to Pádraic every now and then. Colm tells Siobhán (Pádraic’s meddling bookish sister, played by Kerry Condon) that he doesn’t have “a place for dullness in my life any more”, to which she rightly replies: “But you live on an island off the coast of Ireland!” Ironically, Pádraic verifies his opinion to Siobhán that the island’s dullard is in fact not him, but Dominic (the friendly son of an abusive cop, played by Barry Keoghan), creating a disingenuous hierarchy of hurt.
Pádraic, and I imagine like any of us, cannot fathom why his best friend would unexpectedly so strongly desire to completely ignore his existence. The question begets, is it wrong to so boldly cut people in your life off? To Pádraic this was never in question, as he grabs every now-forbidden opportunity he has to make contact with his best friend Colm. Pádraic’s persistence, however, is met with an even stronger stance—pester Colm, and he swears to chop his fingers off one by one—an insanely dramatic counteraction to Pádraic’s resoluteness to mend his friendship. Why fingers? Because those are his fiddle-playing fingers!
This film scantily qualifies as a quasi-tragicomedy, aptly blurring the thresholds between satire and commentary, and in a broad sense merging the lines set up by interspersed comical scenes in an otherwise dramatic premise. The trace amounts of humour however, do not come from deadpan-mannered conversations, it comes from the ensuing daily routines (like heading to the pub together every two o’clock) so ingrained within the quiet little life in Inisherin like clockwork, or hitherto at least.
Set in a 1920s quintessentially Irish island, Inisherin was fictitiously stitched together via a few different parts of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, Ireland to create an absolutely picturesque rural landscape.
The Banshees of Inisherin is fully contained within this remote island, just as all the characters are contained within this social network web like any other little-local-lonely island. Martin McDonagh does an excellent job in introducing Inisherin to the viewers’ imaginations, not too hasty nor too measured or leisurely in the film’s pacing, as we get a real feel of the island’s inhabitants and how they relate to each other.
The film’s greatest, most unique point is also its shakiest aspect. Fleeting existentialism met with (what could be dubbed as) ‘plainly good storytelling’ dialogue, sends mixed signals of whether we the viewers should be focusing on the dread of the macabre—time slipping away, impending death—or rejoicing on the complexity of human relationships, of how friendships should be—just like how Pádraic argues that his banal small island chatter with Colm is by no means “aimless chatter”, but rather “good chatter, good, normal chatter”.
The film’s score and in particular its theme song deliver a perfect summation of this movie. Although the score wasn’t the star of the show by any stretch of the imagination, Composer Carter Burwell emphasises the film’s quaint folktale feel with refrains that sound like off-kilter nursery rhymes played on cracked shellac records. It has this great mix of ‘peculiar’, ‘frivolous’ and ‘ominous’ qualities, subtly reinforcing the film’s ambiguity of an idle life on lonely Inisherin between two best man friends.
The film’s music also seems to reveal deeper insights into the rationale for what is on screen:
“The music often refuses to get emotional and for some reason, that makes it even more emotional. That has something to do with the whole film. It is very contained. No one ever shouts in the film. It’s very quiet and yet so intense and so sad and so funny.” — Carter Burwell
McDonagh was quoted as not wanting any Irish film music, despite mentioning that “Everything else is very Irish — the accents, the clothes, the situation, the pub.” The intention of the Mise-en-scène is rendered immediately transparent, that the music while supplementary in nature was directed so as not to leave you in Ireland. “He wanted it to take you someplace else.” This successfully gave the film clarity, of which the film is Irish and is about Irish people, but its core concerns transcend such limitations and become more of a commentary on the ever-enigmatic hu(man) nature.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a thoroughly engrossing watch, and so deserving of its contention in the race for Oscar’s best picture.