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“What’s that, Jenny? Will we go to the pub for ourselves? We will. Come on.”
What starts in the beginning as a Coen Brothers-esque buddy flick (à la its spiritual predecessor, In Bruges) ends with its viewer in a million pieces. This is a Martin McDonagh movie, after all. The Banshees of Inisherin left me absolutely shattered.
Great art is a magnificent cathartic release and expression of pain, and writer-director Martin McDonagh is a master at it. This film is probably McDonagh’s magnum opus for me. It is fascinating to see someone whose work I have generally thought of as bitter, cynical, and spiteful (in a wickedly clever and entertaining way) confront the way that bitterness, cynicism, and spite isolate and destroy people by deadening the things that kept their kindness afloat in the way he does in The Banshees of Inisherin. This is a film about despair, pride, the loss of relationships, and the Irish Civil War – cloaked in allegory.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a story about the breakup of a male friendship on the fictional island of Inisherin off the Irish coast, set in 1923, nearly a year after the start of the Irish Civil War. Pádraic (Colin Farrell, in a career defining performance) lives a content and happy life with his wise and loving sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and his beloved animals, which include several horses, cows, and a cherished miniature donkey named Jenny.
Pádraic’s daily routine consists of the care of his animals and meeting his best friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson), down at the local pub for a pint at 2pm. One day, Colm doesn’t appear as planned, and after Pádraic inquires more than a few times, Colm is forced to confront Pádraic with the declaration that he simply no longer wishes to be his friend. Pádraic is understandably taken aback and confused, while Colm seems to have had a recent revelation of his approaching mortality and how he wants to spend the time he has left. Colm is an artist, well-traveled, as we see from the international artifacts that’ve been collected from his travels, lining the walls of his home. He is a musician, a talented fiddle player, and he feels compelled to leave a lasting musical legacy in one great song – a song he cannot write if he continues to spend his precious time in mindless chatter with his former best friend. He feels the sudden rush of time passing… the mortality clock is ticking.
Contrarily, Pádraic is quite happy living simply with his sister and amongst his donkey and horses, easily delighted by his daily pub chatter and drinks with Colm. In fact, Pádraic cannot accept the fact that he has been essentially “broken up with.” He needs to be liked. He needs to know that he isn’t “dull,” as Colm labels him. Colm warns Pádraic to “leave [him] alone, don’t speak to [him], just to accept this news as it is”… and if Pádraic doesn’t stop bothering him, then he will cut off one of his fingers for each incident, until he has no more fingers left.
Pádraic thinks, “Surely Colm cannot be serious?”
This small action sets both characters down a dreadful course.
Within this small village on Inisherin, there’s also a traveling Priest, a mythical old woman dressed in black named Mrs. McCormick, the local policeman and his son, and the eccentric Dominic (Barry Keoghan).
Director McDonagh seems to have split himself in half into these two men, showing the warring sides of himself.
The Banshees of Inisherin wastes no time in posing its questions to the audience: “Should I spend all my time working on my art? Or spend all my time in small talk and getting smashed because why not enjoy life and what’s the feckin’ point anyway…?”
I think everybody feels this, at one point or another.
I know I’m constantly at war with the question of what is a useful life? “Is it better to be remembered for something great? Or to have been nice and maybe eventually forgotten?”
This film may not answer these questions, but it’s not supposed to. It leaves the answers up to the viewer to decide. How the viewer feels or whom we identify with says a lot about our own selves. Those are the best kinds of films – the kinds that teach us something about ourselves, that reveal something about ourselves…
Watching a Martin McDonagh film is like holding up a mirror.
None of his characters are straightforward or one-dimensional but written with deep layers of complexity, intended to be unpacked after much consideration.
The first image of The Banshees of Inisherin tells you something is going to go wrong. That this is a tragedy, suggesting threat ahead. A rainbow over picturesque scenery of life on this beautiful island (that is really a floating prison, claustrophobic and trapping to those who may desire a life beyond it, like Siobhán or Colm). McDonagh has honed such a distinctive style and aesthetic that is uniquely his own, and each of his four films open lingering on the landscape that holds its story ahead. Each location is such a distinctive, cinematic character in his films.
In his debut feature, In Bruges, the opening scene introduces us to two Irish hitmen arriving on assignment in Bruges, Belgium, walking shoulder to shoulder amongst the cold and dreary medieval architecture.
In Seven Psychopaths, the first shot is of the Hollywood sign backlit by sunshine and pans down to the pair we meet on the Mulholland Dam below.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens on abandoned billboards within its quiet, midwestern setting.
In The Banshees of Inisherin, we see stunning landscapes of the island these people all inhabit, picturesque, grand composites that resemble paintings. There is a heaviness to Ireland and a history. An awfully sad history that makes the Irish people who they are. An inherited sadness of these people, in such a beautiful place. McDonagh uses this cultural juxtaposition as a tool to convey his story.
McDonagh and longtime collaborating cinematographer, Ben Davis, incorporated influences from the John Ford westerns of the ’40s and ’50s and John Hinde’s Postcards of Ireland to capture the mythical and melancholic beauty of Ireland. The mood also taps heavily into the Irish folklore of the land and its enchanting folkloric quality.
Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh collaborated with local octogenarian Delia Barry to help design the handmade knits worn by Farrell, Keoghan, and Gleeson, which adds a regional and authentic depth that is truly one of a kind to each character’s wardrobe.
The Oscar-nominated score, composed by longtime McDonagh collaborator Carter Burwell, allowed for the cinematography and costumes to paint the Irish landscape, intentionally leaving out any element of traditional Celtic music, instead composing a fable-like soundscape, complimenting the Irish countryside perfectly. The story is told through Pádraic’s point of view, and the music travels solely with Pádraic. It’s a quiet environment with explosions and bombs heard off in the distance on the mainland.
Burwell’s haunting and elegant score paired with a series of sprinkled-in shots of the island scenery and its farm animal inhabitants are some of the most moving visuals I’ve seen.
At one point, McDonagh fixes his camera on a solitary white goat against the harsh and beautiful sunrise of the island, holding the frame for a few extra beats, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t trying to tell us something.
Perhaps no other contemporary filmmaker has proven themselves more skilled at utilizing the innocent lens of animals than Martin McDonagh. His work is riddled with unique supporting characters in animals, who most often serve as the heart and soul of the story. Animals are innocent, sentient beings who tell the truth, much like children, and McDonagh is a master at tapping into this concept and capturing it on camera.
There’s the irony of the white rabbit and cow in his Oscar-winning short film “Six Shooter.” There’s Bonny, the stolen Shih Tzu in Seven Psychopaths, the only creature on Earth who inspires affection from cold-blooded gangsters. There’s an achingly sweet scene in Three Billboards between Frances McDormand’s character, Mildred, and a wild deer who shows up as both a source of comfort and symbolism.
Then, there is Jenny – a miniature donkey who, alongside several horses, serves as a devoted and reliable companion to Pádraic in The Banshees of Inisherin.
Halfway through the film, we are promised fingers if Pádraic continues to violate Colm’s pleas to be left alone, and we see that coming. However, what we don’t see coming is this other relationship that has been built. It’s been hidden under the obvious humor, played as comedy so as a viewer we aren’t even noticing that this significant relationship is being built.
But Martin McDonagh is noticing. He’s building that relationship for a reason. Because he takes this story to places the viewer doesn’t see coming.
Outside of Siobhán and Dominic, the only other relationship in this man’s life is his relationship with Jenny the Donkey.
Now he’s lost his best friend Colm, his sister Siobhán sails off for the mainland, his new friend Dominic drowns in a tragic accident, and now his beloved donkey is gone. Something switches in Pádraic. Jenny’s death is the catalyst, and he is forever changed by it.
Farrell’s magnificent and heartbreaking performance here suddenly makes Pádraic look different to us, nothing physically has changed, but he is different.
Now it’s Pádraic who wants vengeance. Now it is Pádraic who steps into the antagonist’s shoes. Jenny’s death marks the catalyst for change within our protagonist, and the dynamic established between the two former friends is fully flipped on its head, in proper McDonagh style.
This thematic idea of the value of life is again reflected in Colm’s final confessional scene with the traveling Priest, as he confesses his anguish over having accidentally played a part in Jenny’s death.
“Do you think God gives a damn about miniature donkeys, Colm?” The Priest asks.
“I fear He doesn’t…and I fear that’s where it’s all gone wrong,” Colm answers.
This is a devastating line of dialogue.
It speaks to McDonagh’s greater point: that we’ve forgotten about this simple little thing called love.
It speaks to his fear that maybe God doesn’t care.
God doesn’t care about this being and its loss that has absolutely destroyed Pádraic’s life? Well then that is a problem.
Rarely is an animal depicted in a film to truly matter, whose presence and subsequent absence serve equally to that of its human counterpart. There is a level of respect for all life in this film, and there’s severe consequences and significance when that life is lost. Why do we not value these relationships as much as we value those with humans, especially when humans so often fail us?
Pádraic’s animals offer him grace and companionship. And while at first Siobhán takes issue with Pádraic allowing Jenny to come inside, we still see Siobhán give Jenny a little pet in the kitchen when Pádraic is out of sight. Every major character in The Banshees of Inisherin interacts with animals in a deep and kindly way, and there’s absolutely no mistaking the intentionality of this.
In The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh tells a story of despair, of change, of a breakup, of pride, of friendship, of the Irish people – all guised under brilliant allegory.
In the final act, the policeman (who is also Dominic’s sexually abusive father) tells Colm about the execution he’s eagerly going to attend on the mainland… and he just can’t remember if “it’s the free state lads or the IRA lads doing the sentencing… Wasn’t it so much easier when we were on the same side?”
This little monologue delivered by the most despicable character in the film is the key to Martin McDonagh’s message of the film. We all used to be friends, on the same side, and we finally got what we wanted – peace. But instead of accepting peace, we started fighting amongst ourselves for reasons that are hypocritical and difficult to understand.
Just like Colm talking about Mozart, he’s such a deep thinker, right? Trying to leave this legacy behind, unlike his “dull” friend Pádraic… yet Colm doesn’t even know when Mozart lived.
Instead, they are all fighting with each other for reasons no one understands… Their stubbornness has caused escalations, resulting in the death of the innocent, committing the sins of self-mutilation and murder. McDonagh isn’t just cutting off fingers here, he is using the idea as a metaphor. He is talking about how the Irish Civil War was an act of self-mutilation that cost both sides the legacy they were fighting so hard to leave.
McDonagh is pointing the finger at both sides. Highlighting the pride, the hypocrisy, the despair of both sides which led to civil war…
Colm’s pride, that he is a wise musician, leaving a legacy… but it’s also Pádraic’s pride. No, he’s not the dull one. There has got to be someone dimmer than him. We see what it’s like to fall into pride and despair.
When Siobhán goes to return the first finger she calls Colm out on it: “It’s gonna be really hard to create that song with no fingers”. And he responds, “Yeah, now we’re getting somewhere.”
Underlining all of this, is despair.
The banshee isn’t screaming anymore, as told in the old Irish folktales passed down through generations, now she just sits and observes… watching the people of her island… as Mrs. McCormick does.
We never expect the death of innocent Jenny or for Colm to lose his whole hand as his initial promise teased or for Pádraic to be the guy who doesn’t want to end the war.
In the final scene where the two old friends meet on the beach, Colm asks if all the events that have transpired have evened things out. Pádraic replies that this will stay with them until their graves. “Some things there’s no moving on from, and I think that’s a good thing.”
This has cost both sides so much that by the end, hands cannot be shaken, and peace cannot be made. But there are two sides in this country, and it’s impossible not to tango.
One hundred years later, 2023 in the United States, we are in a similar place in this country, where we have two sides doubling down on pride and despair. And we are in a place where we’re at risk of forgetting our love for each other and where our country feels like a place we may have to flee. I think this is just one of the reasons why The Banshees of Inisherin is such a powerful film right now. It’s not just about Irish troubles, it’s about human troubles. Even though it’s told in what seems like a simplistic fairy tale and draped in comedy to make the cold, hard medicine go down easier, it’s really a film about despair and pride, how those two simple ideas can turn us against each other and destroy our opportunities for peace. And how they can unintentionally destroy others too along the way.