“The Banshees of Inisherin”: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Colin Farrell bothers Brendan Gleeson in "The Banshees of Inisherin".

“So who do you think would win in a fight, Grindelwald or Mad-Eye Moody?”

Years ago I heard a pastor (not at our home church) sermonize to an auditorium full of men about what he called “radical amputations” — times in his life when he made conscious, arguably over-the-top decisions to remove potential chances for sin to enter his life by any means necessary. He knew his limits and his temptations, and took hard measures to avoid jeopardizing his family, his job, his church, and/or his relationship with Christ. Historically speaking, some pastors have fared far worse at their sin management than others. God bless those who find ways to turn away from impulsive stupidity.

The most drastic example he cited from his own past concerned a onetime assistant of his, apparently a lovely woman who was good at her job. They were frequently alone in the office. She didn’t jokingly flirt with him or do anything remotely resembling a romantic gesture in his direction, but he felt himself growing attracted to her and, shall we say, entertaining impure thoughts on a recurring basis. He never acted on those thoughts or tried to perpetrate anything Weinsteinian on her, but his imagination and hormones wouldn’t shut up. After this had gone on for a bit, he realized something needed to change. So he fired her.

This “radical amputation” on his part amounted to punishment for her despite absolutely no wrongdoing on her part — no performance issues, no rules broken, no red marks on her permanent record or whatever. But he could feel himself in danger of moral/spiritual slippage and decided he needed her permanently and immediately out of his orbit for the sake of everyone and everything that depended on him. Years later that story still doesn’t sit well with me (not once in his sermon did he suggest perhaps he should’ve hit the road), but the concept stuck in my head.

I was graphically reminded of that confession (which he positioned to us as family-man advice) as I sat raptly through The Banshees of Inisherin, the latest film from writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), in which blunt decisions, sin, and stupidity become man’s worst friends.

It’s 1923 and Northern Ireland is mired in the early days of “the Troubles”. Gunfire and flames are everyday ambiance noticeable from miles away, but after so many months they’ve blended into the background like insects. At face value the bloodshed has naught to do with their neighbors in Inisherin, where conflict gets easy to shrug off when it isn’t in your face. The fictional island is like a grassy, stagnant crater surrounded by lush panoramas that belie the ennui permeating the air. Amid the congenially indifferent townspeople, former hunk Colin Farrell is a simple farmer named Pádraic. He plies his wares, cares for his animals (especially his favorite donkey), and loves his much smarter sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon from Better Call Saul, a Three Billboards player who’s also the voice of Tony Stark’s second A.I. aide, F.R.I.D.A.Y.). The best part of his routine is when he and his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) go down the pub at 2 p.m., have pints and gab for hours. Tie on one, go sleep it off, wake up and repeat.

It isn’t fancy, but his is a happy life…until it isn’t. One morning, same as it ever was, Colm abruptly calls their friendship quits. Pádraic is shocked and mystified, nary a warning sign he can recall. Granted, he isn’t one for detecting subtleties or nuance. Then again, none of the slightly more levelheaded folks thereabouts saw it coming, either. “Were ye rowin’?” everyone keeps asking him, wondering if they’ve missed any recent sparring. (“Rowing” here rhymes with “plowing”, not with “mowing”.) Far as anyone knows, Our Hero is an ordinary Nice Guy and this treatment isn’t right, but no one wants to step in the middle, either.

At first Colm refuses to discuss the matter because further communication would imply he wants to keep a dialog open. He doesn’t. Mind you, he isn’t abstaining from all friendships. He carries his fiddle with him and hangs out with other musicians, cheerfully shooting the breeze and doing the occasional impromptu barroom jam. But he’s an old man who feels he’s running low on years, questioning his priorities and how he’s meant to spend his remaining minutes. His midlife crisis ran late but has finally arrived. But where’s that leave Pádraic? Their friendship was the best part of his life. On this tiny island where there’s nowhere new to go and nobody left to meet, what’s he supposed to do now? And how does he take stock of whatever his missteps were if they’re kept secret?

Pádraic isn’t smart enough to second-guess his motives and is too good-natured to treat his bestie harshly, so he tries honoring the terms of their bro-breakup. As if to sublimate his frustration, he starts lashing out at others with insensitive candor, as if to prove he’s more than willing to say what’s on his mind, unlike SOME people he could mention. (The one time he lies to anyone, he feels awful, though it’s utterly hilarious.) Perhaps he could’ve kept it up and moved on if it weren’t for an inevitable incident with, of course, alcohol. One totally uninhibited rant in Colm’s face later, the stubborn ex-chum ups the stakes with an ultimatum: he demands Pádraic leave him alone forever, or else Colm will start chopping off his own fingers. Not Pádraic’s fingers. His own.

Pádraic is shocked, as is everyone in town who hears about it, which is everyone. How far will Colm go to settle the matter without resorting to a face-to-face discussion of feelings? I’m tempted to write this off as retrograde machismo, but that’s off the mark. The macho thing to do would be to punch Pádraic in the face repeatedly until he flees or chokes on his teeth. (For educational purposes, McDonagh adds a subplot in which the film’s most certifiably toxic male demonstrates this approach in contrast.) The self-mutilation threat amounts to Colm holding himself hostage and counts on Pádraic’s affection to save him from himself. In an alt-timeline where Pádraic were smart, perhaps he’d have been on to something. (The film’s trailers reveal Colm’s ultimatum, but it’s curiously absent from the TV spots, which puree the entire film into a comedy of lower-class manners about the importance of niceness.)

Just how badly Colm overestimates him, and how consequences soon spiral out of that, light up the dark trail where Banshees dares to tread. Farrell channels confusion and innocent hurt through those thick eyebrows of his until he reaches a breaking point — via more trauma than even the drunken rant spurred — while Gleeson’s decades of weariness build the toughest brick wall they can until an unexpected weak spot in the mortar chips away. As with McDonagh’s previous films, one or more characters choose forceful, unilateral decisions over mannered negotiations, alarm everyone around them who’s not used to verbal or literal brutality, and suffer side effects in varying levels of unfairness. Though unpredictability can be an intellectual delight in some films, anyone who’s conflict-averse in real life might find themselves covering their eyes and cringing as McDonagh threatens to boot his ensemble and his audience together off a cliff just to see if they bounce.

It would all be far more depressing if morbid absurdity weren’t among his strongest suits. Through copious piles of the Irish F-bomb variant and constant repetition of even the inanest questions again and again (I lost count on “Are ye rowin’?”), the interactions cross David Mamet with Samuel Beckett like a sequel called Go Away, Godot. It’s morbidly funny and breezily callous, because that’s how dudes can get with each other, for better or worse or worst. Usually it’s the latter, which is why I don’t hang out with a lot of males in person nowadays.

In real life I’d be likelier to take the side of sister Siobhán — she more than holds her own in repartee and attempts some mediation, but eventually realizes it isn’t about her and recuses herself to the max. She doesn’t get any of this “boys will be boys” crap. Frankly, good for her. In her own measured way, she realizes sometimes distancing yourself from someone is necessary, like when you avoid a codependent relative’s calls or block internet trolls. Sometimes a gradual, nuanced approach might be more appropriate, and feels less like running away from a problem or pretending there isn’t even one. But she leaves a door open for reunion later. Never say never, and all that.

Beyond the bloodshed — not as much as I expected, yet not taken lightly, either — the two lunkheads are left to find their own way through what they’ve done to each other and to themselves. Both end the movie with far less to their names than they’d started, numerous radical amputations later. Their final scene will stymie some viewers. Others will recognize its insight into one of the weirder aspects of male relationships. There’s no coming back from some deep divides and horrible misdeeds, but there’re also some things that everyone but everyone in an old small town recognize as The Way Things Should Be. There are, believe it or not, some things guys value over their pride.

As Pádraic and Colm live out their own slightly bloodier take on Frances Ha, across the water in Ireland, the gunfire and flames rage on, unnoticed from afar.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Barry Keoghan (Eternals, The Green Knight) adds slightly less gallows-based comic relief as Dominic, the stupidest, most annoying person in all of Inisherin. All rubbery postures and shallow profundity, he’s a maundering, meandering reminder that, for all Pádraic’s obtuseness, he could be worse off. And Pádraic isn’t that desperate to appoint a new best friend.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Banshees of Inisherin end credits, but one section reminds us in this day and age even the pluckiest of staunch indie films need visual effects artists…as we see when it comes time for Colm to prove whether he was bluffing.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: