The Banshees of Inisherin: A Peculiar Deconstruction of Male Friendship


Tom Layton reviews Martin McDonagh's newest black comedy

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By Tom Layton

Martin McDonagh once again mixes tragedy and comedy to create a dark, violent and decisively heart-breaking cocktail of a film that ruthlessly deconstructs male friendship. Comparisons to In Bruges are obvious, with McDonagh again casting Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as the two central characters. However, the comedy is more sentimental in Banshees, the jokes are more gently amusing and less laugh-out-loud funny than in his previous work, and each works to illustrate the absurdly dark places the plot takes us to. The historical setting is also a surprisingly important aspect of the film, with rifle fire and explosions from the Irish Civil War echoing across from mainland Ireland, towards the film’s remote island setting, mirroring the degenerative conflict at the heart of the film.

In keeping with McDonagh's style, the setting is best described as peculiar. Inisherin (inspired by Inishmore, the largest of the Aran islands) is a barren island, with dirt roads, verdant fields and a jagged coastline. Only accessible by sea, the islands’ inhabitants live in relative poverty, inhabiting draughty coastal cottages and convening either in the pub (at 2pm) each afternoon, or every Sunday at church. The inhabitants live a harsh lifestyle, and the film slowly peels back a frayed curtain to reveal a culture of violence, gossip, and selfishness.

The plot is driven by the relationship between Pádraic Súilleabháin and Colm Doherty (Farrell and Gleeson), which stands apart as more real and human than the majority of the other relationships on the island. Their friendship is torn apart when Colm inexplicably breaks off all contact with Pádraic, claiming that he has experienced an epiphany as he reaches the end of his life, wanting to spend his final years producing music and art that will survive into posterity.

Colm shuns Pádraic, claiming that he is just “dull”, and only exciting when he is drunk. This prompts Pádraic to embark on a journey of personal exploration as he tries to comprehend and repair his split with Colm, which drives the plot of the film and results in a realisation for Pádraic about his own nature, and that of those around him. Throughout this journey, the tone and comedy of the film gets progressively darker - McDonagh refusing to shy away from the obscene and the horrifying, including an unsettling full-frontal nude of the local policeman (during his “wanking time”) and Colm’s self mutilation.

Throughout this, McDonagh explores the meaning, or rather, different meanings of friendship, offering observations on male loneliness and a moral critique of the facile and selfish nature of society on the island. The role of tradition, cycles of violence and male pride are also illuminated in disturbing detail, through the sub-plot of a corrupt policeman (Gary Lydon) who beats his naïve and impressionable son Dominic (Barry Keoghan), and as Colm and Pádraic’s conflict devolves into a pathetic slugging match of shocking violence.

As the plot progresses, and these themes become more apparent, the picturesque natural setting becomes claustrophobic and oppressive. The overbearing atmosphere of the island eventually prompts Pádraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon), in what is perhaps the turning point of the film, to take a job at a library “on the mainland”. Before this, she not only fulfils a maternal role in Pádraic’s life but acts as a catalyst for his realisations about the other inhabitants of the island. In one scene, after a confrontation in the pub between a resolute Colm and an emotional Pádraic, where Colm condemns Pádraic’s dullness, Siobhan confronts Colm, exposing an embarrassing anachronism about Mozart (“It was the 18th century, not the 17th”) and emphasising Pádraic’s inherent good heart. Her leaving prompts one of the most heartrending scenes in the film, as Pádraic writes her a letter, repeating the last line to himself while choking back tears: “come back home Siobhan”.

The character of Mrs McCormick (Sheila Flitton) is ever present throughout the film, speaking very little and observing and predicting some of the most harrowing scenes with grim amusement. She is ingrained with the folklore of Inisherin, as Colm unknowingly points out her similarities with the local folk legend of the Banshees of Inisherin. McDonagh’s representation of folk religion sits at odds with his presentation of the Catholic Church, who are shown to be no exception from the island’s conniving and facileness.

This driving and sickening plot is held together by a minimalist script alongside standout performances by the entire cast, and the darker thematic explorations are alleviated and sometimes complemented by amusing, occasionally slapstick comedic moments. The cinematography is sumptuous and dripping with symbolism, but never so much that it distracts from the narrative. The soundtrack is a sparse, strangely appropriate mix of Latin choirs and folk instruments which helps to build the setting and draw attention to important moments.

One main criticism of the film could be its oddness, and due to the structure of the narrative, it is some time before it begins to pick up pace. However, the artful cinematography should be enough to tide over viewers, who will be rewarded with a film that is peculiarly small in scale, but ambitious in thematic scope and depth.

Editor's Note: This was screened at York PictureHouse with a press ticket