Martin McDonagh’s new film, The Banshees of Inisherin, is centered around one ancient friend’s decision to remove the other from their life, causing a strange and surprising chain of events. Questioning the reasons behind this decision becomes the beginning of analyzing both the film and its allegorical structure.
“I don’t like you anymore.” This sentence lies at the center of Martin McDonagh’s new film, The Banshees of Inisherin (2022), who started his movie career with In Bruges (2008) after a long and successful theater career and can be seen as one of the most successful writers and directors of our time. The film opens with a rather typical Irish scene, with a cloudy, verdant, untouched rural landscape and a character wandering through it. We understand from our character’s greetings that he resides in this small town, and continues his routine with confidence and groundedness. He arrives at a house at one of the most scenic points of the landscape and invites his ancient friend out, as they usually do, to go to the pub for a few beers in the afternoon. The Banshees of Inisherin starts where this routine is interrupted, and one of these two ancient friends refuses to leave the house. His reason for disrupting the routine puts forth the film’s initially superficial but increasingly dark (and strange) structure: “I don’t like you anymore.”
Indeed, McDonagh surprisingly places this sentence at the center of his film. From the first moments of the film, we watch how one of two friends who live on a fictional island in Ireland no longer wants to talk to his forty-year-old companion and is willing to harm himself if necessary. This situation turns into an event that sucks in and grows out of control all those who live in this old and small town. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) tells Pádraic (Colin Farrell) that he no longer sees spending time with his dull politeness and aimless goodness as worthwhile, and wants to devote the rest of his time to music, poetry, and creation. Colm says that if Pádraic continues to talk to him, he will cut off the fingers on his violin-playing hand, and states that he simply wants to stay away from him. As Pádraic refuses to accept this and Colm refuses to compromise, we watch as both characters and the entire town become a raging fire.
At first glance, The Banshees of Inisherin tells a rather superficial and simple story. We follow a narrative where the plot progresses with a clear cause-and-effect relationship – perhaps even too much so – and the initial appearances of behavior leave little room for interpretation. It seems like a story with a folkloric, mythological essence. The characters are drawn with thick lines, caricatured figures depicting the death fairy belief called “banshee,” from the village “crazy” to the police officer, from the gossip to the “wise one,” making you feel like you are inside a fable or allegory. However, McDonagh’s mature writing and direction invite the audience to look inside these cracks that he opens up on the surface.
Undoubtedly, there is a need for an explanation that arises from the cracks in the film’s superficial appearance. The question of why Colm says, “I don’t like you anymore,” and how long it will last becomes one of the first questions that come to the viewer’s mind in the first part of the film. This also allows for some hesitation regarding the seemingly straightforward cause-and-effect relationship in the film (one can’t help but ask, “Is this for real?”). These cracks begin to deepen the superficial plot of the film. The first layer that Colm’s uncompromising attitude and Pádraic’s stubbornness bring to question is undoubtedly fragile masculinity and performance. We can understand that around the issue of friendship, two men struggling to prove themselves create a channel for criticism of masculinity in the film. On the other hand, with the help of the film’s absurd close dialogue writing and actor direction, we can say that the film offers a form of masculinity that has been greatly softened, even largely exempt from masculine performance. The film reveals to the audience how even this kind of “naive” masculine relationship can be purposeless and damaging, and how it can easily lead to violence. It is also worth adding that Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) is quite important in showing this context. Many of Siobhán’s reasonable statements gain ground in this context throughout the film.
On the other hand, it is a fact that the moment when Colm actually cuts off the finger he had promised to cut off carries a significant turning point. Up until that moment, we follow a story that progresses with the vague posturing of some men who have a naive nature, and has a stronger humorous side. With this turning point, the story darkens sharply and becomes tragicomic. It should be noted that McDonagh’s direction also conforms to this formally. (Especially the original music by Carter Burwell, with its modern and fluid structure that contrasts with the very archaic and ethnic-looking story, plays a critical role in achieving these dramatic maneuvers.) From here on, we begin to follow a man who is prone to harming himself to the extent of cutting off his own fingers, turning his fight for freedom into an obsession that he considers privileged and prioritized, while keeping track of what is happening around him. This actually allows another dimension of The Banshees of Inisherin to seep through the cracks. The question the audience faces throughout the film is the reason behind all of these events. As the duration of the events grows longer, the tone of the film darkens, and some answers become insufficient. Therefore, the stubbornness and uncompromising attitude in the story constantly forces the audience to face new questions and search for answers. In a sense, watching The Banshees of Inisherin is like trying to reach the bottom of a well and struggling to see what is there, only to find the answer that there is only water.
The Depths of the Fracture: The Civil War
Thus, the audience is pushed to look more deeply into the cracks opened up by McDonagh’s story. The most obvious of these cracks are, of course, the explosions that suddenly occur in the narrative world of the film. Indeed, from the first moments of the film, we see the characters witnessing the civil war raging on the mainland across from them. Therefore, we understand that the film is set not in any place and time, but on an island overlooking the Irish mainland in the early 1920s. That is, during the last period of the civil war between the IRA and the Provisional Government of Ireland, which took place between 1922-1923. This civil war, initially located as a distant background to the time period where the film is set, begins to expand this crack in the narrative with the absurdity and need for explanation of what is happening between Colm and Pádraic. As the story of a man who has suddenly stopped speaking to his closest friend for no reason and wants to focus on art and production continues, it acquires a conceptual context that goes beyond this apparent cause-and-effect relationship. The film implies that Colm’s problem is primarily about freedom, and that cutting off his fingers is a form of civil disobedience performance. As details about the civil war begin to seep into the surface of the film in different forms and occupy more space, it becomes apparent that there is an allegorical context at the center of the main narrative of the film.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a film that has been structured as an allegory for the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. Throughout the film, the absurdity, disconnect from societal reality, and distance from the people of the civil war are frequently mentioned through the characters’ dialogue. Additionally, choices such as the fictional island’s name “inisherin,” which means “Island of Ireland” in Irish, and the recreated Irish stereotypes (green and desolate landscapes, beers drunk in pubs, language and clothing details) as the film’s geographic setting indicate that it has been constructed as a microcosm of Ireland. McDonagh positioned the steps taken in the script and the characters to press certain buttons and carry specific meanings. Therefore, the details of the film’s simple story are loaded with multiple meanings. It is possible to say that the social structure and long-standing environment of division open up these cracks.
After the Irish War of Independence, which ended with Ireland’s independence between 1919-1921, the treaty signed between the new Irish government and Britain (Anglo-Irish Treaty) caused a rift within Ireland. This division between the Free State, which implemented the treaty, and the IRA, who opposed it, quickly plunged the country into civil war, resulting in a ten-month-long internal conflict following the war of independence. The Banshees of Inisherin takes place during the final days of this civil war in 1923. In the film, the short but intense conflict is portrayed through the characters as an absurd or uncertain stubbornness. Even the priest who will go to the mainland for executions cannot remember who executed whom or even if it matters. When Pádraic hears the explosions, he directly expresses the absurdity of the situation by saying, “Whatever they are fighting for now…”
Returning to the film’s story… It is essential to emphasize that Colm’s request for separation stems from an undefined or insignificant motivation. As the issue grows and reaches a point where it will harm everyone, an allegorical narrative that highlights the smallness and absurdity of the causes of the civil war and ongoing social division emerges. Here, of course, the main issue is to state that male stubbornness with misguided purposes has a significant share in the emergence of war. McDonagh clarifies that even though such absurd divisions harm everyone in society, they are an integral part of existing structures with his choice at the end. Two men (freedom-loving, selfish art lover Colm and naive, well-meaning but boring, dependent on those around him Pádraic), who have lost loved ones, their homes, and have only one value left in their hands, continue to be enemies in the same place. In fact, Pádraic is straightforward: “Some things never pass, and that is a good thing.”
The main controversial issue in The Banshees of Inisherin is actually at the bottom of the well. The movie starts and ends with the simplicity of “brother against brother” that we are accustomed to. This is a very simple starting point and hard to argue against. The absurdity of war and the killing of parts of the same community… However, we know and need to know that social structures are never that simple and that wars and conflicts arise from the mechanisms of oppression created by those “we are brothers” statements. There is also a risk in telling the story of an issue that has led to all-out war through a man wanting to break off his relationship with his friend just because he feels like it. If we read the IRA as Colm and the new Irish state as Pádraic, then the separatist group’s motivations for separation are underestimated and trivialized from this perspective. This is certainly a status quo approach. The IRA, which emerged in the early 1900s in the struggle for freedom against colonial Britain, underwent a transformation after the 1921 agreement and caused the split that started the civil war. It continued to transform after the war, and different factions emerged that continue to this day. It is worth adding that the two main parties in the Irish parliament today are the representatives of the sides in the 1922-1923 civil war.
Ultimately, like many social conflicts, this is not simply a matter of a desire for separation. McDonagh’s approach and narrative style have garnered international attention and the film has been highly acclaimed, but it has clearly had different effects in Ireland.
Despite its fundamental dilemma and controversial approach, The Banshees of Inisherin is one of the best films of the year with its ability to convey multiple meaningful and different expressions at the same time through expert storytelling skills. Along with the lead roles, the supporting performances of Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan (including the performances of the dog and donkey), the maturity in music and cinematography, and the general directing skill all deserve the attention it has garnered. Although it makes the context of its achievement controversial, there is no doubt that The Banshees of Inisherin is one of the most enjoyable films to discuss and think about.
Last modified: July 9, 2023