‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ Review: A Taste of National Divorce
Plus: A Veteran’s Day assignment!
The Banshees of Inisherin is a cinematic metaphor for the Irish Civil War. At least, this is what I gather, both from the setting (1923, when rifle and cannon fire on the Irish mainland can frequently be heard on the fictional island of Inisherin) and some of the discussion around Martin McDonagh’s film.
I am not an expert on the Irish Civil War or the conflict between the provisional government and the Irish Republican Army, so I will not endeavor to address the artistic accuracy of the picture’s intended symbolism. I will, however, suggest that despite its very Irish nature, The Banshees of Inisherin is a perfect film for the most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, as it’s about being stuck with people you’ve grown to hate because, well, they’re there and they’re always going to be there.
As the story begins, local farmer Pádraic (Colin Farrell) is upset because local fiddler Colm (Brendan Gleeson) no longer wishes to be his friend. There’s no reason given: Pádraic did nothing to give offense; he did not insult Colm or his mother or his dog. Colm simply finds Pádraic dull and doesn’t want to waste any more of his life listening to Pádraic’s dullness. He wants to be able to focus on his music and craft something that will be played 200 years hence. Pádraic might be nice, but Colm has no more time for niceness, and demands to be left alone.
That demand escalates in stridency as Pádraic refuses to take the hint; eventually, as the trailers reveal, Colm tells Pádraic that every time the dull-ish man bothers the would-be Mozart, the composer’s going to cut off a finger and give it to Pádraic. This brings new meaning to the phrase “cut off your nose to spite your face,” as we learn how many fingers a fiddler really needs to wield his instrument.
The drama of The Banshees of Inisherin comes from the simplicity of the setup. Two people live on an island with just one pub, one post office, one church. How long can they avoid one another? Or, more precisely, how can one who is spurned avoid the temptation of talking to the other when he knows that discourse will result in his friend’s self-mutilation and disaster?
It is a dramatization of the inherent silliness in all the talk of “national divorce” you sometimes see around the fringes of political discourse in the American context, this idea that the Two Americas have become so different from one another they should simply go their separate ways. Set aside the asininity of such a suggestion when America already has a system designed to let people create governments of their own (federalism, baby, it’s a miracle). There is no such thing as national divorce, not when states are literally stuck together. There’s too much shared history to divorce, too many raw feelings. National divorce isn’t a thing.
Civil war, however, is a thing. The gunfire in the background of this film is an auditory manifestation of the split between Colm and Pádraic—and a reminder of how ugly such separations truly are.
We feel for Pádraic because there’s something very human about wanting to be liked. It’s one thing to be disliked for good reason; I think we’ve all had a falling out where both sides understand the problem. And it’s one thing to drift apart out of neglect; even in the Internet age, it’s hard to keep in regular contact with all of our friends from high school, college, work, etc. But it’s something else entirely to be rejected for, simply, being nice-but-boring. Compounding that rejection by constantly being in each other’s presence is nigh-on intolerable.
Farrell and Gleeson worked together on McDonagh’s first feature, In Bruges, and they are a delightful odd couple: Gleeson has a mournful old-soulness to him, while Farrell is just this side of dim. He’s not the village idiot—that’s Dominic, played with admirably twitchy weirdness by Barry Keoghan—but he’s not far off. They’re just a lovely pairing; the saddest moment in the movie comes a bit less than midway through when Colm helps Pádraic up after he’s been punched and sits silently beside him as they drive a cart back toward Pádraic’s house. Colm doesn’t hate Pádraic, but it’s that very lack of hatred is what makes Pádraic break down in snuffling tears. It’s easier to be hated than simply unliked.
I haven’t even mentioned Kerry Condon yet, who is doing career-best work as Pádraic’s long-suffering sister, Siobhan; she’s too bright for the island, yet anchored there out of concern for her brother. Condon brings a quiet frustration to Siobhan, who deserves more than what she’s settled for.
I don’t know if Banshees is quite as good as In Bruges, but it is darkly comic and sure to inspire some involuntary guffaws even as you wince. And it’s a timely reminder that every attempted breakup leaves a price to be paid.
On this week’s special bonus episode of Across the Movie Aisle, we discuss our favorite movies of the year (pre-awards-season division). Fun episode, listen now:
And if you haven’t signed up for B+, do so now!
I am sad to say that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is both a bloated mess and a visual disaster. It’s like they took everything that worked about the original—the fact that it was largely self-contained; the interesting ideological conflict at its core—and threw it right in the trash.
Loved talking to Julia Alexander on BGTH this week. We dove deep on why Seinfeld is such a winner for Netflix, how sitcoms work financially in the post-syndication/streaming era, why Hocus Pocus 2 probably wasn’t leaving money on the table by skipping a theatrical release, and more.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is going to be eligible for best animated feature at the Oscars. I hope it wins!
RIP Kevin Conroy, whose voice work as Batman is one of the few truly definitive portrayals of a comic book character in movie or TV history.
Assigned Viewing: The Great Escape (HBO Max)
Not necessarily my favorite World War 2 film (that’s probably Patton), but a very solid one and one that’s streaming on HBO Max. Watch it tonight in honor of Veteran’s Day!