The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) Review

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) Director: Martin McDonagh

“Some things there’s no moving on from… and I think that’s a good thing.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rife with nods to the existentialist films of Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Banshees of Inisherin plays like a requiem, a darkly macabre folktale about an encroaching sense of despair that hangs over a town once its star has faded. With a haunting funerary score by Carter Burwell, The Banshees of Inisherin offers a powerful examination of loneliness and the struggle to finally let go of old things.

It is 1923 and the Irish Civil War is coming to an end. Far away from the struggles of war sits a remote coastal town called Inisherin, a tiny “old world” village where people watch rifle fire from the shore and wonder when the fighting will end. However, they have no real concern one way or the other. The people of Inisherin are removed from both the joys and the troubles of the wider world. It is a place seemingly filled with old world customs, but which has actually been hollowed out over time. In this place, we quickly uncover a general sense of widespread bleakness, grudges are common, loneliness is rampant, and the empty passing of time simply leads to the inevitability of death. Depression remains ever-present among the people. There are no children and few people are married. Suicides and abuse are commonplace. Christian religious imagery lingers all over Inisherin like the whisper of death. Much like a mythical banshee, the death of this town is written on the faces of its people, even an old woman (perhaps one of the town’s “banshees”) can be spotted from time to time, cackling and portending the future, though she is little more than a “ghoul” haunting the town.

Reuniting the two lead actors from Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008), in The Banshees of Inisherin we are introduced to two friends –a milk farmer named Padraic (Colin Farrell) and a fiddler named Colm (Brendan Gleeson). Each day, they walk to a local pub at 2pm to share drinks, however Colm, one day, suddenly decides that he doesn’t want to be friends with Padraic anymore. “Maybe he just doesn’t like you no more” becomes the central question of the movie –why exactly have Padraic and Colm had a falling out? At first, Padraic approaches Colm to apologize, begging him to stop pulling away, but Colm simply remarks, “I just don’t like you no more.” Colm sees Padraic as little more than a dullard, an ignorant simpleton who lacks self-awareness and depth. Colm hopes to spend his few remaining days writing music, composing something enduring that will last beyond his life like the works of Mozart. He is painfully aware of his own mediocrity and the stultification of his own community. He is an artist, rather than a laborer, and he is filled with angst upon realizing that all of his toils in life are soon to be forgotten in fifty years-time. Colm confesses a foreboding sense of existential despair when speaking with the town’s grumpy, belligerent priest. Padraic tries to speak with Colm several times –even asking the local priest to talk with Colm– but Colm simply threatens to lop off his own fingers if he hears from Padraic again. Here, we sympathize with the happy-go-lucky innocent nature of Padraic as he wanders through this cold, desolate land. He lives with his hopeful and artistic sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), but even she longs to escape this dreary, hopeless place.

Until now, the first half of the movie has actually been quite funny –we are treated to scenic visions of life in a remote coastal village in Ireland, which, in another film, might have filled us with pleasant nostalgia for a better time, and we are also introduced to quirky characters like a ne’er-do-well boy named Dominic who is regularly beaten by his policeman father, events which leads him to spend the night at Padraic’s house– but once Padraic realizes Colm is serious about not wishing to be his friend anymore, Padraic grows sad and bitter. After one or two drunken confrontations, Colm proves he was not bluffing. He begins stubbornly chopping off his fingers and tossing them at Padraic’s door in a shockingly brutal act of self-mutilation, an especially horrid injury for a fiddle player. Colm does not wish to be a “nice” person anymore, and he writes a new song called “The Banshees of Inisherin.” With no more friends left, Padraic begins lashing out. Bitterness has sadly infected the people of Inisherin and it easily spreads among them.  

The stunning coastal scenery in this film initially lead us to believe this will simply be another conservative period piece, celebrating the past, elevating and deifying it as morally superior to our own, gratifying our own vanities and caving to popular prejudices, appealing to the easiest, unrefined opinions of a great many people, however The Banshees of Inisherin mines a much deeper well. It explores the notion that life in old world Europe was just as depressing and mediocre as our own –it is merely a creeping and unsettling feeling that all people have experienced in one way or another. Whereas small coastal Irish towns have often been the subject of daydream fantasies for today’s urbanites the globe over, as they long to escape their own troubles and return to a simpler time, Inisherin shows this fantasy to be little more than a pipe dream. It suggests that only those who are able to overcome their own stubbornness are able to escape this meager nostalgia and find greener pastures elsewhere. And that’s exactly what Siobhan does –she decides to leave the madness of this petty old town. Eventually, we see her sailing joyfully away from the maddening depression and decay, while crucifixes lie rusting in the harbor like prison gates enclosing an embittered and dying people –they are crumbling reminders of why she is leaving.

To add to the chaos, Padraic’s beloved donkey chokes to death on one of Colm’s severed fingers. In response, Padraic burns down Colm’s home (Colm survives) and Dominic drowns in the lake (perhaps by suicide, or perhaps killed by his abusive father), but still the dreary pace of life in Inisherin continues onward, almost no one seems to care about the endless string of deaths. Colm and Padraic pledge to continue their mutual grudge against one another –their bulwark arrogance serves as a metaphor for the Irish Civil War which continues raging on the mainland. Meanwhile, Inisherin continues to decline as a place where only the forgotten, the lifeless, the brooding, the resentful, and the embittered of the world await their death. Allusions abound to our current post-neoliberal political struggles. But life remains a joy for the living –people who still have some vitality left in them decide to seek out happiness in greener pastures with the hope of a better future. Optimism lies in escape from this dark and pessimistic land. In this respect, The Banshees of Inisherin is a film about finally letting go. The healthy human mind goes boldly forth into the unknown, rather than clinging to dusty old archaisms that have long since died at the root. A person can either cleave to their resentments, embracing a life of mourning and sorrow like Colm and Padraic, or else they can find happiness among a new culture of people like Siobhan. In this respect, Siobhan stands apart as the silent hero of this bleak ghost story.

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