a Rare Slow-burn Story That Grows On You Gradually
When Siobhán (Kerry Condon) exclaims exasperatedly, “You’re all f***ing boring! With your piddling grievances over nothin’! You’re all f***ing boring!” after 51 minutes into Martin McDonagh’s nine-time Oscar-nominated The Banshees of Inisherin, it jolts you. In this moment, Siobhán becomes the voice of reason, echoing the spectators’ thoughts, steadily getting just as vexed at Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm’s (Brendan Gleeson) mindless rowing.
Set on a fictional Irish isle around the time the Irish Civil War was coming to an end in 1923, at first glance, Inisherin seems idyllic in its seclusion. However, what unravels (almost painstakingly) slowly over the course of the next 114 minutes is an exploration of the human condition that is heavily characterized by worries of mortality, legacy, the very mortal constraint of having limited knowledge and understanding, and how all that affects our perpetual search for meaning and purpose.
Why The Banshees of Inisherin Needs to be Savored Over Time
Those who have not lived through “interesting times” wouldn’t know why it is supposed to be a curse, according to an old English saying, often wrongly attributed to the Chinese. Historically speaking, one stands to lose it all when living through these “interesting times”—one’s health, wealth, sanity, as well as lifelong friendships, the latter of which might have something to do with the loss of sanity that only gets increasingly pronounced with boredom. The recent pandemic-prompted lockdowns highlighted how isolation breeds haunting loneliness instead of acting as the perfect ground for individualistic originality to thrive as capitalism promises.
There is a long-held belief that if an actor makes you hate them for playing a villainous role, then they’ve done their job well. Somehow people forget to extend that same courtesy to stories that manage to evoke the same feelings in the audience that the characters are supposed to be going through as well; if a film starts boring us, our mind tends to switch off. The Banshees of Inisherin can seem tedious to some precisely because it does an excellent job of how its atmosphere spills through the scenes and colors the viewer’s mood. It manages to take something absolutely prosaic as two friends fighting over seemingly nothing and delivers a rare slow-burn story that packs in allegories of war, politics, the supernatural, and the human condition all in one go.
In one way, the growing animosity between Colm and Pádraic directly mirrors the Irish Civil War, where it can be argued that Pádraic represents the Free State forces and the self-sabotaging Colm is akin to the IRA. Colm’s attacks on Pádraic’s niceness can be seen as the militant IRA’s stance on the Free State’s naive acceptance of the British Empire’s offer of becoming their dominion with the British monarch as head of state. Colm’s impatience with Pádraic’s simple-mindedness and preference for a drunk and aggressive version of him is another parallel. However, enough contradictions in both characters blur the lines between the two sides.
There are moments of kindness we see in Colm when he helps out Pádraic as he’s being bullied by the local police, Peadar (Gary Lydon), who can be seen as a stand-in for the British empire. On the other hand, streaks of cruelty in Pádraic turn his closest ally in this conflict—which has even the local priest taking sides— Dominic (Barry Keoghan) against Pádraic and possibly towards his doom. This blurring of sides is further underlined in an interaction between Colm and Peadar. In the pub, Peadar confesses he’s utterly confused about whose execution he will attend the next day, “Free State lads are executin’ a couple of the IRA lads. Or is it the other way around? I find it hard to follow these days. Wasn’t it so much easier when we was all on the same side, and it was just the English we was killin’?”
While Dominic can be seen to represent the innocent casualties of this senseless squabble, Siobhán, by leaving it all behind, depicts the fate of the Irish diaspora.
Beyond the Historical Context
The sparse dialogues, fleeting use of music, and vast empty spaces depicted in The Banshees of Inisherin, especially with the spectral presence of Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), drive in the (almost crazed) spookiness of the solitary environment. It can drive anybody to the edge, sour otherwise steadfast bonds, and make people miserable. If you have ever gone through a breakup with a friend you thought was more like family, you will feel the discomfort even more sharply. You will feel the embarrassment, the bafflement that Pádraic feels because the viewer is made to experience it all through his point of view.
You want Pádraic to leave it all behind when Siobhán beseeches him to, “There’s a river running past my window as I write, and the people already seem less bitter and mental.” You wish, like Pádraic, perhaps you could forget those terrible feelings, but you know some things cannot be undone. Some feelings linger forever. As Siobhán’s final words fall on deaf ears, “Because there’s nothing for you on Inisherin. Nothing but more bleakness and grudges and loneliness and spite and the slow passing of time until death,” and Mrs. McCormick, like a banshee, watches Colm and Pádraic at the beach in the final moments of the film, you know that their fates are sealed.
The trio behind Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which also did a masterful job using empty spaces and sounds to create the melancholic atmosphere of the story, Carter Burwell, Ben Davis, McDonagh along with Mikkel E. G. Nielsen, deserves all the credit here. Each reading of the film reveals a new subtext hidden in every character’s seemingly insignificant actions; every time you take the time to mull over what happened, you stumble upon something new.