The Banshees of Inisherin

I’ve called my kids banshees a few times as the word is just passing parlance in popular culture. Like hyenas, chickens with their heads cut off, holy terrors or league of demons. I’ve never put the effort into finding out the meaning of the word.

In Irish mythology banshees are wailing female spirits that herald death on a family or community. The etymological definition is literally woman of the fairy mound; bean (woman) + sidhe or shee (fairy mound). The fairy mounds are the population of mounds that riddle the landscape of Ireland. The banshees sing mournful lamentations over the dying.

The Banshees of Inisherin is a quiet, simmering, tale about a pair of lifelong friends that have a break up. One friend is a dim-witted, kind, naive fellow (Pádraic) and the other is a seeking, brooding, fellow in an existential crisis (Colm). There is an age gap between the fellows and Colm dwells in his elder years of life. Colm decides, one day, to end his friendship with Pádraic for the simple reason that he doesn’t like him anymore. Or is it that simple of a reason? Is it, rather, that they will not grow so long as they wallow in this friendship? There are other characters on this Island off the coast of Ireland that weave the thick tapestry of this community. An eager young man (Dominic) who is looking for potential, a pair of gossiping bar mates, Pádraic’s sister (Siobhán) who is being stymied in this dead end town, an abusive policeman and father to the eager young man, an irritable priest, a nosy shopkeeper and a demented, old townswoman who is haunting the townsfolk.

The narrative on friendship is a heartbreaking one. We watch the affable Pádraic be told by his hallowed friend that he no longer likes his friend anymore and we watch Pádraic’s face collapse, muscle by muscle, into shame and hurt. Yet Pádraic keeps hope or, rather, he resists letting his friend go and the movie twists and turns like the stone walls meandering the Irish countryside until, mournfully and decisively, the stone ravages any persisting good feelings between the two pals. Meanwhile on the mainland the Irish Civil War of 1923 is playing out.

Pádraic looks on in the direction of the war and says,

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

Is it a declaration that he’ll never stop fixating on his friend? Is it a declaration that he’ll never quit seeking revenge? Is it loyalty to one’s roots despite its demise? Is it a philosophical statement that infighting, despite lapses and interludes, will never stop? And why is that good? Is it our mortal struggle to find purpose, to find home?

This movie was written by playwright Martin McDonagh who wrote In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In the Roger Ebert review of In Bruges he mentions, “every once in a while you find a film like this, that seems to happen as it goes along, driven by the peculiarities of the characters.” I think that is exactly what is happening in Banshees of Inisherin. The character of each man drives his actions rather than logic. And in a review of Three Billboards there are such observations of McDonagh’s script as, “anger is not treated like something to be cured”, “it is more about cause and effect than crime and resolution”, “allowing almost all of his characters to be deeply flawed”, and “the world is more complex than most movies would have you think”. I think those observations apply here as well. McDonagh does a great job writing dark dramedy’s. I feel like the Irish (and the Russians) are good at that. I laughed consistently through the movie but was equally heartbroken and eager to see the drama to its end. I loved Brendan Gleeson in the 2014 movie he was in called Calvary. Once again, like In Bruges, he pairs with Colin Farrell in this movie.

This movie is unique in that you don’t have the gnawing feeling that the shocking calamity should be further attended to, like “why isn’t anyone asking more questions?”, “where are the police?”, “who is going to intervene?”. Instead, McDonagh let’s the character’s choices just be and it isn’t out of place in this insular community where they all seem stuck and their only future is waiting for some news whether or not the news changes anything. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie about adult friendship break up or certainly not one that is treated with this much thought.

In the final scene Colm is left with his last instrument and like a banshee he sings his lamenting song.

The Banshees of Inisherin

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