‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ deservedly rakes in awards

Images courtesy Searchlight Pictures – that’s right kids, this extended allegory for the Irish Civil War where Brendan Gleeson cuts his own fingers off is a Disney property!

9/10 The Banshees of Inisherin is one of the top movies of the year, simple yet contemplative, expressive and emotionally razor sharp.

Inisherin among the Aran Islands on the east coast of Ireland, April 1, 1923- Local folk musician Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) begins abruptly ignoring his longtime drinking buddy, Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell). As the confused Súilleabháin tries to mend the friendship, over the course of a week and a half, tensions between the two wind to the point that Doherty threatens to begin cutting his fingers off in protest every time Súilleabháin speaks to him. Relationships in the tiny island town unravel as inhabitants begin to wonder whether or not they really like each other or the isle of Inisherin.

Banshees of Inisherin is the fourth feature film from playwright and director Martin McDonagh, who’s been putting them out every five years like clockwork. He’s one of the best dialogue writers and meta storytellers working today and appointment viewing for any cinephile. Perhaps only Quentin Tarantino is better suited to make a movie about smalltalk so irritating it fully ends a relationship, but his version would be a completely different movie. McDonagh has already hit mainstream success with his last film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Inisherin collected screenplay and lead actor awards at Venice and three Golden Globes, including Best Picture in the comedy category, making it an Oscar frontrunner.

At the surface level, Banshees of Inisherin is a terrific, engrossing slice-of-life film and period piece ripe with architectural, cultural and dialect detail about agrarian Ireland, all of which I’ve been assured is completely accurate. We root into the day-to-day life and the crisis that a social split like this would cause in a bored community where there’s only one bar that everyone drinks at and one church with one confessional box that everyone sits in.

The color grading and Ben Davis’ cinematography, which commits to fleshing out the extremely limited space for a full 114 minutes without ever making it seem monotonous, does a terrific job of capturing a place you could spend your entire life in, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but won’t because the mood has soured. The blocking and frequent, weighted images of Súilleabháin and Doherty next to each other and separated almost tell the story on their own – though that’s also a reflection on the purity of the conflict, as Doherty refuses to give any concrete reason for his rejection.

Watching the film, it’s hard not to remember lovers who wouldn’t accept a breakup or friends’ attention-seeking behavior and sympathize with Doherty. In a lot of breakups I’ve observed or participated in, confusion is the first reaction, and The Banshees of Inisherin zeroes in on this common and rarely addressed phase of human relationships. The idea that someone who’s known you for years has decided you are such an active drag on their day-to-day life and it’s worth the effort to remove you isn’t something we ever get trained to hear, and it’s no wonder most people don’t really know how to take it.

2022 was a big year for cynical, almost toxic films that make a big point of how much they hate their own characters, and The Banshees of Inisherin is the capstone of that trend, executing this narrative device properly. Its contempt for its characters and callous use of them as symbols is unmistakable, but it doesn’t come at the cost of basic narrative building blocks like motivations that are understandable, if not exactly clear, and a main character you can empathize with. Brilliant lead performances from Gleeson and Farrell, who’s picked up several awards already, reuniting with each other and McDonagh after starring in his brilliant 2007 debut In Bruges, go a long way here as well.

At a deeper level, The Banshees of Inisherin is a tedious and obvious reflection on the Irish Civil War, with characters routinely hearing gunfire and remarking on the fighting in “the mainland.” Inisherin is a fictional island in a real archipelago off the west coast of mainland Ireland, at this point in history split in half by the Irish Civil War, which is itself an island off the coast of mainland Britain, permanently split in half by the always-shaky truce with the Scots, which is itself an island off the coast of mainland Europe, at this point having just been ripped in half by an apocalyptic global war so horrifying it was said at the time that it would end all wars.

The Irish Civil War uniquely lends itself to a story about setting and enforcing boundaries between friends. The history here is, after the Conscription Crisis at the end of World War I when England tried to conscript Irishmen to help save France – this is after 206,000 Irish enlisted in the British Army voluntarily – they organized into the Irish Republican Army and had a full-on revolution to kick the English out for good. England eventually came back with a treaty to share control of Ireland, and this same IRA immediately transitioned into a civil war between factions who said “sure, you can hang around Belfast” and those who insisted “no, we set a boundary and you need to respect it, please get all the way the fuck out of Ireland.”

April 1 is a Friday in the film, which is important because it’s rural Ireland and going to church on day three in the film’s timeline is a major plot point, but in actuality, April 1, 1923 was a Sunday. HA! You thought I wouldn’t check, but I nailed ‘em!

After almost a year of island-wide guerilla warfare and mass executions, anti-treaty forces’ leadership was exterminated and a ceasefire negotiated, but the war never really ended. Northern Ireland was created under the terms of the treaty to remain part of the U.K., along with a political boundary that the IRA has never had a single shred of respect for. The warring factions make up the two main political parties in the republic to this day, and for many, the fight for a free, united Ireland is ongoing.

The fighting between Doherty and Súilleabháin and the gossip that stems from it becomes a metaphor for the conflict in Ireland that broadens into a metaphor for war in general – not that war is always unnecessary, but that it is always unnecessarily destructive. Doherty cutting off his own fingers and otherwise going far out of his own character to make himself unpleasant for Súilleabháin is a great analogy that captures a lot of the complexity and difficulty of adult conflict while also being gory, shocking and a little silly.

Some things, there’s no moving on from.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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1 Response to ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ deservedly rakes in awards

  1. Katreeva says:

    And I think that’s a good thing…

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