‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ and the dark Catholic imagination of Martin McDonagh
Bleak, blistering, horrifying and hilarious, the Irish Catholic filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s new movie “The Banshees of Inisherin” serves up sad enough stuff to leave viewers crying in our beer. But first we laugh.
We laugh at Pádraic Súilleabháin, played by Colin Farrell, an easygoing, simple man who racks his poor brain trying to figure out why his best friend, Colm Doherty, played by Brendan Gleeson, ups one day and says, “I just don’t like you no more,” banishing him from his presence. We laugh at the genial pub owner, Jonjo Devine, and his goofy sidekick, Gerry, eternally ensconced on “his” stool at the bar, played by the Irish comedy duo D’Unbelievables, as they pour pints and try to keep the peace between the former B.F.F.s now become fractious friends. We laugh at Pádraic’s attachment to his adorable miniature donkey, Jenny, and at the naïveté of Dominic, the slow-witted local boy, who tries to help Pádraic repair his relationship with Colm.
Martin McDonagh’s new movie “The Banshees of Inisherin” serves up sad enough stuff to leave viewers crying in our beer. But first we laugh.
We laugh and we are also gobsmacked. First, by the stunning beauty of Inisherin, a mythical island off the coast of Ireland—a fictional version of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, where the movie was largely filmed—where the sea, the cliffs, the mists and the round of sunrise and sunset evoke Eden, an unspoiled paradise where the inhabitants live in harmony with the earth and the daily passage of time. However, as with the first Eden—and every Eden since—it can’t last. Soon enough we are gobsmacked again, this time by blood and brutality, the old story of human sin and suffering that unfolds in the midst of all this beauty. (Fair warning to readers: spoilers lie ahead.)
Friends, Enemies, Grotesques and Holy Fools
Like all of McDonagh’s films and plays—among them “Seven Psychopaths,” “In Bruges” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”—“Banshees”is smart, dark and mordantly funny. The natives of Inisherin are grotesques, country people who are comic exaggerations of themselves, much like characters in a Flannery O’Connor story. (The influence of O’Connor is evident in all McDonagh’s films, but perhaps most obvious in “Three Billboards,” in whose opening scenes one of the characters is seen reading O’Connor’s signature short-story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find.) Also like O’Connor’s characters, McDonagh’s live in a backwater, though it is rural Ireland rather than rural Georgia. McDonagh takes pains to isolate them: Inisherin is not just an island but an island of an island, a world that is as remote from what we might call civilization as it is possible to be. However, despite the idyllic landscape and its depiction of a place that seems far from the madding crowd, that madding crowd asserts its stubborn presence in the form of bursts of gunfire taking place on the mainland, just across the water. The setting is 1923, and Ireland’s civil war is raging, brother fighting against brother (reminiscent of the first murder) as each asserts the primacy of his ideal of what the newly founded state of Ireland should be.
The plot of the story begins simply and moves quickly to dark complications. The two men who have been lifelong friends become bitter enemies because of a failure of love. Colm, the elder of the two, becomes overwhelmed with existential dread; and seeing his inevitable death in the offing, vows to waste no more of his precious time in the company of his kind-hearted but “dull” friend. Pádraig, a contented, almost child-like “fella” who has never experienced a moment of despair in his life, is dumbfounded by his friend’s rejection, so much so that he pesters him again and again—in the pub, where they were wont to meet for their daily pint and craic at 2 p.m., on the roadways where their paths inevitably cross, and even in Colm’s home. Colm’s response is violent and extreme: He threatens to chop off the fingers of his own left hand, one by one, with a pair of garden shears each time Pádraic speaks to him, and chop them off he does as the incredulous Pádraic repeatedly violates Colm’s wishes in spite of the shocking ultimatum in a doomed effort to win his friend back.
It is a loud story on a quiet island, a place where everyone knows everyone else, including their dark secrets, which they agree to keep to themselves as they look away. But Pádraic is a man without secrets. His generous, open nature is evident to all and is expressed most plainly in his devotion to the simple creatures he cares for: his cows, his pony and especially his donkey, whom he loves as a parent loves a child. Colm’s cruelty confounds the inhabitants of Inisherin as much as it does the viewers of the film—to be unkind to Pádraic is to be unkind to one of God’s holy fools.
It is a loud story on a quiet island, a place where everyone knows everyone else, including their dark secrets.
This archetype of the holy fool resonates throughout the film. Another simple soul in the village is young Dominic. Unlike Pádraic, who is merely an uncomplicated man, Dominic is genuinely intellectually limited and, therefore, thinks with his heart. Pádraic’s fellowship and kindness to him suggests a hierarchy of fools on the island, one in which everyone has a place, including Colm, who thinks he is exempt because he loves and composes music and is devoted to the arts, as evidenced by the artifacts with which he furnishes his home and the Victrola phonograph from which emerges gorgeous classical music.
But Colm is, perhaps, the biggest fool of all. When he accuses Pádraic of being boring, Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán (played by Kerry Condon), a reader and thinker who has no intellectual match on the island, tells Colm bluntly, “Yous are all feckin’ boring!” Wearied by the pettiness, the gossip and the daily round of a life that leads to nowhere, Siobhán has sought escape through reading about the lives of others. But that isn’t enough. Pushed to the limit by the feud between Colm and Pádraic, she makes the agonizing decision to leave Inisherin, to set out for the mainland where a war may be raging, but it’s no worse than the one raging on the island. McDonagh’s lesson is clear: human nature is human nature—corrupt, selfish and cruel—no matter where human beings live.
Siobhán’s departure is a second blow to poor Pádraic. As the old gossip at O’Riordan’s General Store and Post Office warns Siobhán, “If you leave, you’ll crucify him.” Her prophecy stuns the viewer, for this is exactly what we witness in the film—the slow crucifixion of an innocent man. The loss of his friend and the loss of his sister leave Pádraic without love and human companionship in his daily life. The only solace he has is in his affection for his animals, especially Jenny, whom he inevitably loses when she is inadvertently killed by Colm. It is this final death that undoes Pádraic. Unlike the crucified Christ, Pádraic does not forgive his torturer. He cannot and will not forget the outrage against an innocent creature—or the outrage against himself.
Throughout the film, Pádraic is described as “nice.” He is not characterized as “good” or “upright” or “virtuous”—only “nice.” And niceness is what he seeks from others. There is something terribly bland about the word in its popular usage, for we understand that niceness can be a form of subterfuge, a mask that one wears while vile thoughts and feelings seethe beneath a seemingly kindly demeanor. It is telling that among the artifacts Colm keeps in his house is a collection of wooden masks that dangle ominously from the ceiling and are empty-eyed faces, each of which wears a different expression. It is also telling that the Latin origin of the modern English word “nice,” nescius, means “ignorant” and that the word nice in Middle English translates as “stupid.” To be nice is to be a fool—a person ignorant of his or her own true nature—and not necessarily a holy one.
McDonagh’s lesson is clear: human nature is human nature—corrupt, selfish and cruel—no matter where human beings live.
Colm’s cruelty toward Pádraic ultimately leads to a transformation of his former friend, from a seemingly good-hearted fellow into a raging avenger. After Pádraic burns down his new enemy’s house, hoping that Colm will burn with it, Colm offers to shake hands and call an end to their agon. But Pádraic refuses. As long as his enemy draws breath, Pádraic will not rest.
And so the film ends not with a conclusion to the conflict Colm set in motion but with an escalation. As the two men stand on the beach looking across the water to the mainland where the big war seems to be subsiding, Pádraic makes it painfully clear their supposedly small war has just begun.
McDonagh’s Catholic sensibility
This is where an already dark story grows even darker, and this is also one of the places in the film where McDonagh’s Catholic sensibility is most clearly manifest. McDonagh, born to Irish parents and raised in an Irish enclave in working-class London, was brought up in the church and attended Catholic schools as a child; and though he is no longer a practicing Catholic, the signs, symbols and language of his spiritual and cultural formation are indelibly inscribed in all his work. McDonagh’s vision is one that acknowledges the legacy of sin, from which no human being is exempt, including the seemingly innocent Pádraic. Once the veneer of niceness is stripped away, the human capacity for savagery becomes all too evident. Our appetite for revenge is infamously insatiable, and as the screen goes dark at the end of the film, we see no good end for either Colm or Pádraic. They are locked in mortal combat on their tiny island. The little Paradiso has become a circle of the Inferno. As in Dante’s story, this is a Hell each man has freely chosen.
Yet even as McDonagh dramatizes this Catholic view of sin, he characterizes the institutional church as impotent to alleviate human suffering.
Yet even as McDonagh dramatizes this Catholic view of sin, the corrupt use of free will and the refusal of grace (proferred to Pádraic in the form of Colm’s outstretched hand—notably, the one that still has its fingers), he characterizes the institutional church as impotent to alleviate human suffering. The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which overlooks the villagers as they file in and out of church on Sunday, is just that—a statue made of inanimate stone, like all the other stones on this rocky island, only this one is shaped and painted in the likeness of a loving mother. Mary’s face is another mask, one that hides the absence underneath. Passive and detached in the midst of their agonies, she does nothing but stare into the distance, as does the wizened and witch-like old woman, Mrs. McCormick, who wanders about the island, head draped in her black shawl much as Mary’s is covered by her blue mantle, as she prophesies death and doom and then stands by to watch it happen. This chilling identification of Mary with the old woman, who serves as a stand-in for the banshees of the film’s title, equates pagan magic with Catholic dogma. Mary—and, by extension, God—cares no more about these foolish mortals than the nameless, faceless forces of the natural world that ultimately destroy them.
This view of the church is corroborated by the two scenes in which Colm goes to confession to seek absolution for his sins. The decent but feckless priest who comes to the island on Sundays to dispense the sacraments is no real help to Colm in the midst of his despair. They engage in banter that demonstrates the priest’s inability to fathom Colm’s spiritual desolation, despite his efforts to be sympathetic. In one telling scene, Colm asks whether it is a sin to refuse to talk to his friend, and the priest responds: “No, it’s not a sin. But it isn’t very nice.” That word “nice” again, this time in the mouth of a priest, who is in theory concerned with actual virtue rather than the mere appearance of it.
It is here where one sees the priest’s limitations, and that of the rule-bound, by-the-book church he represents, for Colm’s denial of Pádraic is certainly a sin, as surely as Peter’s denial of Jesus. It is a sin against loyalty, a sin against charity and a sin against love. The second of the two commandments Christ issues his followers is to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and Colm fails in this spectacularly. This is a broken church, one that doesn’t understand its own theology or, more precisely, its own story. Only love can save us from ourselves, from the darkness we all harbor within us. Where there is no love, there is no hope, no life, no God. The banshees win.
Colm’s violation of the law of love constitutes a sin against community as well as a sin against God. He behaves as if he has unlimited free agency and no obligation to anyone besides himself, including Pádraic. But everyone on Inisherin is inextricably bound to one another, and his actions reverberate, leading to serious consequences for all. His selfishness tears the community apart. By the end of the story Siobhán has left for a new life on the mainland, enacting a kind of death; Dominic is dead (whether by accident or suicide is unclear); Colm’s house and his hand are destroyed (his fiddling hand, no less, the one he needs most to play and create new music); and peace- and pint-loving Pádraic has been transformed into a monster voracious for vengeance. This is all Colm’s doing, whether purposely or not, and what’s done can’t be undone.
“The Banshees of Inisherin,”much like McDonagh’s previous films,trains its gaze unsparingly on the darkness within the human soul. The humor of the dialogue, the haplessness of the characters and the beauty of the setting help to alleviate some of that darkness, but the film’s sudden and graphic violence shocks us out of our complacency, as it is designed to do. (Another lesson McDonagh learned from O’Connor.) Like a wreck whose aftermath we witness on a highway, we are reminded what a dangerous enterprise it is to be alive in this world. Like the banshees of the title, the film leaves us with a warning of the darkness within and the darkness to come.