“I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”
Everyone has probably heard some variation of these words at least once in their life – and they feel particularly common between kids on the playground. That’s probably why, when full-grown ColmSonnyLarry offers more or less the same words to his buddy Pádraic Súilleabháin, some folks in the village say, “What is he, twelve?”
The words are far from simplistic. The way Colm speaks to Pádraic cuts even harder: “I just don’t like you no more.” Colm says he’s trying to focus on his art, using his time to do something that lasts, and “idle chatting” with someone like Pádraic isn’t helping him with that. It’s hard to deny that rejection as simple as this can get your stomach churning and mind swirling instantly. Why don’t they like me anymore? Is it something I did? Is it something they did? Have I changed? Have they changed? Am I unlikeable? Does anyone like me? The immediate inner turmoil can eventually implode in flame.
The Banshees of Inisherin captures that existential implosion with wit and tragedy befitting of Martin McDonagh’s directorial stamp.
Ever since Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I’ve been fascinated by McDonagh’s view of the world, and finally watching In Bruges this year only deepened that fascination. There’s an intense cynicism and darkness to his stories that some might even go so far as to call nihilism, but unlike some viewers, I can’t say any of them have ever left me fully depressed or hopeless. Amid the rubble of broken relationships and comic absurdity of the pain in McDonagh’s work, there’s always a glimmer of love and relationship among pathetic people that beckons toward a deeper reality and core human longing. The endings are always just open enough to imagine a path to healing and a path to even greater darkness. McDonagh’s relationship to Catholicism is particularly interesting to me, too; he’s clearly disillusioned and jaded with the institution, but nevertheless seems unable to escape the pressing moral implications of the character of Christ.
Banshees centers a big chunk of its moral and thematic exploration around the concept of “niceness.” Is niceness the same as goodness? Is it a sin not to be nice? What does niceness ultimately accomplish or leave behind when we’re gone?
“Ya know who was remembered for how nice they were in the 17th century? Absolutely no one,” argues Colm, “but I’ll tell you something that lasts: Music lasts. And paintings last. And poetry lasts.”
“So does niceness!” Pádraic pleads.
It’s one of many moments where Pádraic’s earnest spirit compels the audience to side with him. Pádraic’s perceived niceness, though, isn’t entirely as rock solid as it might seem.
When the film opens, Pádraic is literally living in an Irish world of sunshine and rainbows. His meaning comes from the day-in-day-out rituals of farm life, a recurring trip to the pub at precisely 2 o’clock, and the few friends in his tiny town—but he’s content with it that way. Or at least, he likes to tell himself he’s content. If there’s one thing Pádraic is resistant toward, it’s self-reflection: “What’s the matter with everyone?” he mutters, after his sister Siobhan asks if he’s ever felt lonely. When Siobhan mentions that she’s reading a “sad” book, Pádraic says, “You should read something not-sad, Siobhan, else you might get sad.” Until Colm’s firm and undeniable rejection, Pádraic has never been asked to confront his own life or happiness, or the nature of his relationships.
Colm’s self-reflective existential crisis brings the whole island into confusion and disorder, primarily because nobody has ever had to do any real reflection on their routine lives, nor had they any reason to face rejection in a direct way. The question of “liking” the other people at the pub has never been a real concern; there aren’t many other social options if you don’t.
In a modern individualist landscape where we can find niche social circles and communities (especially online) that perfectly suit our unique interests and preferences, the concept of such bare limitation in possible relationships might seem archaic to us. Yet in a sense, for people like Pádraic especially, it allows the freedom to live without feeling a need to impress or seek out. Some might call it passive; others might call it restful. Colm’s decision to question the value of spending time with his neighbors shakes everything off-balance, ushering in a sense of personal choice and boundaries that feels more akin to the way we allocate our time and curate our relationships in the modern western world. That’s not to glamorize the village life on Inisherin, though. The film frequently depicts the discomfort of living in a place where everyone knows (and talks about) you in a way that can often feel downright dystopian. Everything that transpires in the village is watched by someone, either from behind a bar counter, through a window, or across the pond, and this inescapable tight-knittedness breeds claustrophobic insecurity.
After the initial rejection, Pádraic’s early pursuit becomes about “going back to the way things were” and preserving the tentative order of the island life he’s known for decades, even if it means repressing or ignoring any negative emotions stirred up from their hibernation. “Well if he’s depressed, he could at least keep it to himself like. Ya know, push it down like the rest of us,” he says.
Interestingly, I’ve witnessed a good amount of older people resonating with Pádraic’s resolute commitment to a simple friendship, and a small-but-reasonable amount of young people defending Colm’s firm resolve to maintain his boundaries of “self-care” and pursue his art. I’m convinced that both characters are in the wrong from the start. Both are blinded by their own ego and insecurities and both misunderstand the nature of human relationships.
Colm treats his relationships too transactionally; people are only valuable insofar as they add to your life and contribute in some way to your sense of fulfillment or accomplishment by the end of it. Pádraic, though, has never had to do the existential pondering to decipher what kind of relational transaction could ever be occurring in the first place. He just chats about his donkey’s shite without giving it a second thought.
It’s telling that Pádraic’s only other friend on Inisherin is Barry Keoghan’s Dominic, again more by necessity than desire. He’s a character even Pádraic finds boring and annoying to be around, mocking and demeaning behind his back as “the dimmest on the island.” Ironic as it is, Dominic is to Pádraic what Pádraic is to Colm: the slightly simpler friend who mostly distracts from the pressing issue in their mind with petty grievances and trivial conversation topics. It’s not hard to imagine Pádraic saying something along the lines of “I don’t like you anymore” or “I don’t want to spend my days chatting with you” to Dominic, especially if anyone remotely interesting were to come along and take his place. Maybe Pádraic isn’t quite as “nice” as he thinks.
It might be an oversimplification, but in a sense, there is one person who was remembered for “being nice”, and his face lurks like a shadow in the background of much of the film: the figure of Christ. His portrait hangs on the wall over Pádraic’s bed and watches over all the loneliness that transpires. His presence looms in the hymnal song which plays on the record player when Colm goes out for a walk. The sign of the cross plays a visual role in almost every crucial scene between the two men in the film. And even Mother Mary, also known for her purity and kindness, stands guard at the fork in the road between Pádraic’s home and Colm’s home.
Of course, unlike Pádraic’s niceness, Christ’s niceness goes beyond maintaining the passive status quo and brushing the negativity under the rug. Christ is Love, not niceness, and though love and niceness might sometimes look the same, they stem from different sources.
There’s another relationship on display in the film, though: the relationship between brother and sister. Husband and wife create a covenant that must not be broken. Friends have no covenant, but maintain their friendship as long as their similarities prove greater than their differences. Brother and sister are a unique bond, different than the others; they are forever connected but never bound. Siobhan is able to encourage and support her brother while also being honest and sardonic with him in a way that only family can be. Eventually, she leaves him to go to the mainland for a new life and doesn’t look back, but she still offers him a bed and house to sleep in if he would like to come and join her. As such, the bond of sibling kinship is the strongest one in the movie. Maybe in another part of their lives, Pádraic and Colm would’ve called themselves brothers. But the brotherhood is broken. Siobhan is the one truly mature character able to make a decision that is best for her without alienating or pushing away the people she loves; she’s not always “nice,” but she cares for people deeply.
Christ is Love, not niceness, and though love and niceness might sometimes look the same, they stem from different sources.Houston Coley
Siobhan may seem like the person who most embodies love in the film, but if we look closer, there are many moments when Colm embodies love too, even if it’s not “like.” In a very Good Samaritan turn, Colm helps Pádraic up and onto his feet and takes him home after he’s punched in the face by the police officer. And when the officer later accosts Pádraic after his donkey has died, Colm knocks the officer out cold, choosing sympathy for Pádraic’s grief. Even as Colm is cutting off his own body parts to prove he doesn’t care, his actions suggest that he still does—and maybe that’s a discovery for himself, too.
When Colm confesses to the priest that he fears that God really doesn’t care about little donkeys, he’s interacting with an underlying concept of the film: the eternal value of seemingly small and simple things. Colm has become a deist in spirit, fearing that there is a God but all He does is sit back and watch.
“I wasn’t trying to be nice, I was trying to be accurate,” says Mrs. McCormack, the strangely prophetic old woman whose watchful gaze and portends of death make her the titular Banshee of the film. Mrs. McCormack probably best represents what Colm fears God might be like: concerned with accuracy rather than love, observing but never helping.
Colm’s fear that God does not value small things may be what drives him to want to achieve something “great” before his life is out – but in doing this, he begins to lose the simple things that gave his life meaning in the first place. Watching the film for the first time, I could hear the line from David Lowery’s The Green Knight a couple of years ago: “Why greatness? Is goodness not enough?”
Ironically, Colm’s pursuit of his great art leaves him completely unable to make it; by the end of the film, the man with no fingers on one hand is left humming a melody that he’ll never be able to play again. Maybe it wasn’t about the art, after all, but about something deeper and more existential. Maybe it was about finding or feeling something real.
Colm forsakes niceness but eventually finds that he cannot help but love his friend even when he is thoroughly annoyed by him. Pádraic forsakes niceness and spirals into a vengeful rage, but the death of his donkey and the loss of his relationships also forces him to encounter grief for the first time and frees the negative emotions he’s refused to engage for so long. In his interviews about the film, McDonagh has said that Pádraic and Siobhan lost both their parents to suicide. Given what we know about Pádraic, it’s easy to imagine that he never really properly grieved this loss; the only time he mentions it in the film is when he’s drunk. Now, although he spirals out of control, he finally feels something real.
Pádraic’s literal death threat to Colm, and decision to follow through with burning his house down while he’s sitting inside it, is a catalyst for existential change. Colm has been wrestling with his own morality and despair internally for ages, but the walls going up in flames around him as a result of his own decisions force him to decide whether there’s something to live for. Evidently, he believes there is.
In a strange sense, though we never witness any reconciliation between Colm and Pádraic, the conflict brings growth for both of them. When Colm says “I suppose burning my house makes us quits,” there’s almost a sense of gratitude or relief in his demeanor. And when he says “thanks for lookin’ after my dog anyway,” and Pádraic replies “anytime,” with a quivering mixture of forced bitterness and tentative hope, it’s not hard to imagine that they’ll be having drinks again in a few days time with far less passivity in their friendship than before. Maybe they’ll find something closer to love—real, honest, brotherly love. That’s my optimistic interpretation, anyway. There’s another way of viewing it, especially through the lens of the Civil War happening on the mainland, that says this is only the beginning of a long and pointless conflict that will never end. But I’m something of a romantic, and I like to think McDonagh leaves things open for us to hope.
Houston Coley and his wife Debora are missional documentary filmmakers currently living between Atlanta and Czech Republic. Houston is a YouTube video essayist, self-described 'theme park theologian', and the artistic director of a nonprofit called Art Within.