A review of Martin McDonagh's The Banshees of Inisherin
Friendship breakups are hard. I speak from personal experience, and I don't think I know a single person who hasn't experienced one themselves. I've had a few big ruptures over the years, and I'll own it: a few were due to mistakes I made - mistakes of carelessness and self-centeredness. One particularly painful instance was very much the other party's fault, and that one still stings now, even though it's been a few years. The terms of the friendship suddenly no longer apply anymore due to the slight - or betrayal - in these situations and the relationship becomes null and void. But those are the extreme cases. Sometimes people just drift apart, and it becomes apparent eventually that the friendship just sort of... quietly vanished. Those can be easier to accept because, by the time you realize you haven't interacted with the other person for ages, there's not really anything left to grieve anymore.
The worst, though, as far as I am concerned, is when one friend realizes that the friendship has grown boring (or toxic - or both), but the other doesn't see it. When the unaware person learns that the friendship is over, it startles them. There's no overt wrongdoing. There's no slow fade. One person decides it's time to move on, and the other has the rug pulled from under them. I think this type of friend breakup is the most hurtful and harmful because the person who is surprised by the rupture tends to perseverate long after the other party has moved on, wondering if they did anything wrong, wondering if they can fix things... or wondering whether the whole friendship was ever real, to begin with.
The Banshees of Inisherin, a reunion between director Martin McDonagh and actors Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell (who first came together in McDonagh's 2008 directorial debut In Bruges), was released this past fall and explores this last type of friendship breakup. Set during the tail end of the Irish Civil War in 1923, we watch as folk musician Colm Doherty (Gleeson) starts pointedly ignoring his longtime best friend, dairy farmer Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell). The ghosting catches Pádraic completely off guard, throwing a wrench into his comfortable daily rhythm of living with his bookish sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), tending to his animals, and then heading down to the pub with Colm in the afternoon for a few pints and a chat. It's clear that while Pádraic is a kind man and well-liked by the others on the (fictional) island of Inisherin, he doesn't have many people he feels close to besides Colm and Siobhán. The loss of Colm completely discombobulates him, at first, he cannot believe that Colm is abandoning him so abruptly. After pestering Colm to at least give him a reason for ending the friendship, Colm simply says that he just doesn't like Pádraic anymore - he finds him dull, and would rather spend the rest of the time he has in his life working on writing music and spending time with people who are more interesting to him.
Inisherin is a small island, and eventually, almost all of the islanders hear about this friendship breakup. Most sympathize with Pádraic, finding Colm's behavior very bizarre, though some of them do quietly acknowledge that Pádraic can indeed be dull from time to time. Siobhán confronts Colm, calling his treatment of her brother cruel, but Colm remains unmoved. As Pádraic struggles with assimilating the new reality of his existence in Inisherin, and desperately attempts to get Colm back, the islanders notice him spinning out and it becomes a notorious topic of gossip. A local troubled boy, Dominic (Barry Keoghan), sympathizes with Pádraic and tries to help him, but his efforts are as useless as Siobhán's. Eventually, seeing how disturbed Pádraic is becoming due to the loss of the friendship (along with his unhappy situation at home, enduring unspeakable abuse from his father), Dominic becomes disheartened about life altogether in Inisherin and seeks an escape. This is echoed by Siobhán's restlessness in living on the island, resulting in her decision to accept the offer of a job as a librarian on the mainland and leave Inisherin behind. She asks Pádraic to come with her, but he refuses. Even though his already small world has grown much smaller due to Colm's abandonment, he isn't willing to give up the life he is accustomed to altogether. His stubbornness in remaining in a community where he feels isolated essentially amounts to cutting off his nose to spite his face.
I won't spoil the plot altogether for you, but I'll leave it at this: as Pádraic's neediness and hurt over the loss of the friendship increases in intensity, Colm begins to resort to extreme behavior to force him to stay away - in what turns out to be a near literal case of cutting off his nose to spite his face.
Though what I've described thus far may sound quite sad, for the first 3/4 of the film, The Banshees of Inisherin can be accurately described as a black comedy, with witty dialogue, characters you feel you've known for years, a community that feels authentic in its small-town ways… and a bleakly matter-of-fact depiction of Colm's wild method of keeping Pádraic at bay. However, Colm's antics eventually lead to extreme tragedy - albeit accidentally - and Pádraic's inherent good nature is eroded permanently as a result of his grief. It turns into a friendship breakup that could ultimately result in lives being lost.
There is a sense that McDonagh might have been trying to portray the clash between Colm and Pádraic as a metaphor for the Irish Civil War quite literally going on in the background (the community of Inisherin can see the actual fighting on the mainland from their homes on the island, and comment on it regularly). If that was his intent, the metaphor is quite tortured and I’m not a fan.
But what I genuinely appreciate about the film is that it is an exploration of a friend breakup between two men. I think in popular culture, it's more common to see explorations of female friendships falling apart due to bad behavior or simply drifting, and I also think that generally women talk about the dynamics of female friendships and what occurs during a rupture more openly - we are conditioned socially to unpack these complicated emotions in a way that men simply aren't. What happens between Colm and Pádraic is interesting not just because it's looking at the scenario of a male friendship falling apart, but also revealing how fraught the situation becomes because men don't have the same vocabulary to discuss the heightened emotions that emerge when a long-term friendship ends. And essentially, that lack of emotional intelligence is what drives Colm to his extreme behavior to push Pádraic away, and what causes Pádraic's existence to become so destabilized by Colm's rejection of him.
Gleeson and Farrell's comfortable chemistry from In Bruges is still very much intact in this film - the weary older man and his younger, more bombastic sidekick - and coupled with McDonagh's hilarious and often lyrical writing the scenes between the two men absolutely sparkle, even though they are at odds with each other. (I've read multiple reviews that compare their dynamic to Laurel and Hardy, which is quite a compliment.) Condon is wonderful as Siobhán (and I am embarrassed to admit that, only knowing her as Mike Ehrmantraut's American daughter-in-law Stacy on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, I had no idea that she was Irish - or had had such a varied career outside the Breaking Saul-iverse).
The Banshees of Inisherin is available to stream on HBO Max if you can't find it in a theater near you, and while I want to urge you all to see it, I have to acknowledge that it can be a very uncomfortable film-watching experience, and it won't be everyone's cup of tea (my boyfriend, despite loving Gleeson and Farrell in In Bruges, really didn't care for it). But for my part, I found it very affecting, and it has stuck with me for several weeks after having watched it - the dark humor of the premise and the tragic direction it ultimately takes have haunted me. That may be in part because I know how painful friendship breakups can be, but it also has to do with the strength and nuance in Farrell's performance of an outwardly simple man. This is hands down, career-best work from Farrell. His portrayal of Pádraic is so lovable and heartbreaking, and all the more so for what happens to his gentle soul as a result of the ongoing feud over the friend breakup. Gleeson more than holds his own, given that his character behaves more outlandishly, but The Banshees of Inisherin is Farrell's film, and I hope to see him clean up mightily during the upcoming awards season.
Reeya is a musician and writer based in NY's Capital District. Her debut album The Way Up was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.