The Banshees of Inisherin


by Matt Anderson

published October 28, 2022

It’s such a simple story, but under a master wordsmith like writer/director Martin McDonagh, the simplicity is deceptive.

The Start of Silence

On a wee island off the coast of Ireland, two long-time friends find themselves at a turning point in their relationship. One, Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson, The Company You Keep), thinks it’s time to part ways. He honestly doesn’t like Padraic Suilleabhain (Colin Farrell, The Batman) anymore.

As Colm sees it, time is fleeting and he can no longer afford to waste it on Padraic’s lack of substance. It’s not that Colm’s dying or counting down to his last breath. Padraic — according to Colm — simply has nothing interesting to say, no new experiences or interests to share. Much to Colm’s aggravation, Padraic can spend two hours talking about his miniature donkey’s poop. Instead, Colm would rather spend more time working on something that will outlast him. He’s writing music. It’s a piece he calls The Banshees of Inisherin.

Poor Padraic. He’s a nice guy. He’s simple. And he’s at a loss as to his best friend’s change of heart.

That is the setup. Simple. But powerful.

It’s 1923 and the Irish Civil War is raging, but a war between two friends renders its own far-reaching damage.

The End of Nice

Taken only as an entertaining — and engrossing — story of two friends, The Banshees of Inisherin works well on the surface. It transports viewers to a place that never actually existed (the tranquility of the fictional Inisherin) in a time long ago, all without the overabundant use of CGI. But what’s fascinating is how McDonagh has crafted this story to echo through the decades and resonate with the strained condition of today’s society.

In that sense, The Banshees of Inisherin is a deft takedown of social media and the vapid state of so much that is passed off as entertainment. How much difference is there between a country store clerk ripping on a customer for not sharing any new stories and a cautious person who chooses not to overshare on Facebook or Twitter? Not much, really.

And how much difference is there between stories of donkey poop and the abject nonsense that passes as romance in reality TV shite like The Bachelor? Not much, really.

What is the purpose of friendship? Is solitude better than a social life filled with people who keep you down in the dumps and hold you back from exploring what life has to offer? Consider successful entrepreneurs and celebrities who shun friendships that don’t add value. That’s where Colm’s coming from. People who are detractors can suck the life right out of a guy.

But the significance escapes Padraic and he ignores Colm’s request to stay away — from his house, from his spot at the pub — because he wants to understand why it’s all happening. His desire to understand what’s wrong and Colm’s desire for peace leads Colm to a grisly proposition: he’ll chop off a finger each time Padraic invades his space.

The Crush of Destiny

McDonagh, Gleeson and Farrell previously teamed up in the master class that is In Bruges. Here, it’s totally different characters and completely fresh relationships, but Gleeson and Farrell relish the opportunity to deliver McDonagh’s dialogue and play out his story of human interactions. And, to boot, Gleeson wrote and performed the titular musical piece (in that sense, Banshees is a nice companion piece of sorts to Cate Blanchett’s work in Tár).

But, going beyond Colm and Padraic’s strained friendship, there’s still more that enriches this experience.

There’s Padraic’s sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon, The Last Station). The brother and sister share a bedroom and they live quiet lives of virtually no consequence in the remote landscape of Inisherin. She wants more out of life. So does the village idiot, Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk), an innocent kid who suffers under an abusive father.

Keoghan delivers one of the movie’s funniest lines with a heartbreaking sense of fatalism as he attempts to woo Siobhan and get her to go on a date. She’s certain they have nothing in common. That’s before he even gets to pass her his request for a date. “Don’t skip ahead,” he says.

All of this is loosely tied together with appearances by Inisherin’s banshee, an old woman who veers between kindly elder and ominous mystic.