The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin McDonagh

The Promising Black Comedy in ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’

Witty dialogue tempers the cynical take on the human condition in The Banshees of Inisherin, which promises more black comedy from filmmaker Martin McDonagh.

The Banshees of Inisherin
Martin McDonagh
21 October 2022 (US)

Pádraic (Colin Farrell) comes across as a slightly less goofy Forrest Gump in The Banshees of Inisherin. As sincere and honest as Forrest, and also possessing bellow-average intelligence, he too wears his heart on his sleeve and his shirt buttoned to the collar. Both characters are easily wounded — not having fully developed a thick protective layer of ego, they are vulnerable to those willing to take advantage — and their eyes peer out in incomprehension at their mistreatment, like a child being punished for something they don’t understand.

Unlike Forrest, however, Pádraic doesn’t dazzle with deep insights or great wisdom—which, for him, are more likely to be hard-earned through protracted effort and thought than as gifts for the humble. Also, unlike Forrest Gump, he doesn’t inhabit that American dream conveyed in Robert Zemeckis‘ 1994 film, where the slow-witted can rub shoulders with celebrities and shake hands with presidents. Instead, Pádraic lives in a small island community off the coast of Ireland, where the possibilities of life are limited.

It takes a while before the audience of The Banshees of Inisherin realizes the story is set in the year 1923. Numerous references are made to the civil war on the mainland, which forms the backdrop for the conflict between Pádraic and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) that erupts in the wake of Colm’s abrupt termination of their friendship. The analogy between these battles is drawn increasingly sharper as the story progresses.

The war and the combative ex-friends seem to be driven by irrational forces. The resulting “bad blood” poisons the men’s relationship, leaving little chance for reconciliation no matter what glimmers of hope make their way through the darkness. The audience can’t help but sympathise with Pádraic. He shares the peaceful and longing stare of his farmyard companions that his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon)
refuses to allow into their home—the cows, horses, and, above all, his miniature donkey, Jenny.

However, we begin to wonder if Pádraic is capable of the violence that innocent animals wil resort to if trapped and frightened. It doesn’t take long until Colm’s side of things becomes apparent. He wants to be left alone, and his desire for solitude is no less sincere than Pádraic’s desire for companionship. They talk past one another, not listening to one another, which escalates the conflict.

As with their previous collaboration with Martin McDonagh in 2008’s In Bruges, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson perform the bickering couple perfectly. Even when Colm can no longer stand the sight of Pádraic, he is still filled with compassion for his friend’s plight and wishes him no harm, even coming to his aid on more than one occasion. Similarly, even when Pádraic reaches the height of his animosity,
his bitter offensive is fuelled, at least partly, by the fact that he misses his closest friend terribly. Also, as with In Bruges, subtle dark humour is sprinkled throughout The Banshees of Inisherin, offering relief
from the despairing picture that emerges.

Despite the shared gloomy perspective on the life of both films, The Banshees of Inisherin is the
more pessimistic. We are led to believe both the war on the mainland and the conflict between the former friends are cyclical. Once the dispute starts, there is no end: just as one battle concludes, another begins, shattering any momentary peace. Although Pádraic starts with a rather optimistic outlook, believing that all wounds can be healed through good will and empathy, he ends up ruling out forgiveness and endorsing the logic of exchange where there must be an eye for an eye.

The impression that this is a mythical world where everything is determined by Fate is reinforced by the explicit mythical elements in The Banshees of Inisherin film. Seemingly haunting the island and occasionally popping up from seemingly nowhere, Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton) is kitted out like one of Macbeth’s witches. She utters cryptic statements and predictions about the inevitable end that will meet some of the islanders.

It is hinted that she is a banshee that no longer announces death with a scream but merely looks on. In this way, the story in The Banshees of Inisherin is like a disenchanted fairy tale. The terrifying compulsion that pushes all mere mortals toward violence is lurking behind the scenes. Yet, aside from the suggestive visage of Mrs. McCormick, no supernatural agents are showing much interest in what we do—apart from perhaps a grim fascination at our misery.

The Banshees of Inisherin is oddly reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos’ brilliant 2017 drama, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In that film, we also get a disturbing (much more disturbing) vision of life as the acting out of opaque forces in a modern world. Farrell and Barry Keoghan play likable characters in The Banshees of Inisherin, and it’s more accessible than the aforementioned stylized and idiosyncratic horror film.
Lanthimos had toned down the hard edge of his surrealism in 2018’s The Favourite, which may be an even better comparison to The Banshees of Inisherin due to its use of witty dialogue to temper its cynical take on the human condition. This leaves me hopeful for future black comedy films from Lanthimos.