The Banshees of Inisherin: consider the inkblots in this inky-black dramedy

When we call a film a Rorschach Test for the audience, we usually mean people will interpret it based on their own preconceptions and beliefs. My favorite film of this type is “Oleanna,” a David Mamet production that has had men and women at each others’ throats since its release in 1994 (it premiered as a play two years earlier).

“The Banshees of Inisherin” is a different kind of Rorschach Test, one in which we are dissuaded from making gut judgments and are instead asked to evolve our thinking as the inkblots rearrange themselves over the course of the film. “Inisherin” won’t tell you what kind of person you are, but it just might spur you to think about the kind of person you want to be.

The film wastes no time laying out its premise: the very first scene involves Pádraic (Colin Farrell), an Irish cattle farmer on the fictional island of Inisherin, discovering that his lifetime drinking buddy — Colm (the incomparable Brendan Gleeson) — no longer wants anything to do with him. It’s 1923, and the Irish Civil War is coming to a close, but Colm’s sudden refusal to put up with Pádraic’s dry and uninspired conversation ignites a war of another kind between the two men.

Who you side with initially will, of course, depend on your own biases and life experiences. I sympathized with Colm’s desire to free up some of his time to focus on his own pursuits, in part because that fatalistic feeling of never having enough time was an attitude I grew up absorbing from my father. And in comparison to Colm’s talent for writing and performing music, as well as his propensity for deep introspection, Pádraic’s daily routine of going to the pub, returning home to take his cattle to pasture, then going back to the pub for a nightcap doesn’t seem particularly interesting.

An image of Colm playing his violin in a pub.
Colm with all ten fingers!

Still, even if you find yourself attached to Colm as I was, it’s hard to say he’s blameless. The two men have evidently been friends for decades (at the very least, Colm went through the motions for that long). The sudden refusal to engage, as dim and annoying as Pádraic can be, seems a bit cruel and illogical after such a long time. As the pub’s proprietor remarks at one point, they have always made an odd match; even putting aside their personality differences, Colm is clearly significantly older than Pádraic, begging the question of how this so-called “lifelong” friendship took shape in the first place. If this odd couple has stayed together for so long, why break things off now with such vehemence?

As you’ll know if you’ve seen the trailer, Colm soon ups the ante after Pádraic continues to ignore the line in the sand: for each unwanted interaction, he’ll cut off a finger. And dear reader: you’d better believe he follows through.

At this point, it becomes clear that Colm is dealing with more than the accumulated annoyances of a life lived in close proximity to a simpleton. He’s depressed, perhaps in the throes of a “late-life crisis” that is forcing him to confront what he sees as an unproductive life. At its root, his thinking isn’t as logical as he’d like Pádraic to believe: each finger cut off makes it more difficult for him to perform music on his violin, the activity he claims will benefit from the extra free time gained by ending the friendship.

Still, it’s not so easy to simply switch to Team Pádraic. He’s what people today like to call an “emotional vampire,” someone who tends to use people as emotional backstops and on-call comforters rather than engaging with them on a meaningful human level.

This is probably the time to talk about Siobhán, Pádraic’s sister and the film’s third major character. For much of the film, Siobhán is the aforementioned on-call comforter, tending with increasing frustration to her brother’s emotional and social needs while seemingly taking care of nearly every household and farm duty. In other words, she might as well be Pádraic’s mother.

An image of Siobhán standing alone in the Irish countryside.
Siobhán sometimes seems at odds with the pace and nature of life on Inisherin; her red jacket contrasts sharply with the trademark green of the Irish countryside.

For a while, director Martin McDonagh seems to be establishing her as a kind of middle path, someone who sympathizes with Colm’s frustration at her brother’s inane existence but prioritizes treating everyone with compassion. Fortunately, Siobhán is more complicated than that.

She spends much of her free time reading, and when the opportunity presents itself to escape Inisherin for a job on the mainland, she leaps at the opportunity. Just as the conflict between Colm and Pádraic is escalating to an insane pitch, she leaves her brother alone, choosing — much like Colm — to focus on her own goals and personal fulfillment rather than sacrificing her time and energy in the service of others. There are at least two important differences, of course: Siobhán isn’t chopping off any fingers, and to her mind, no one person is responsible for the chaos on the island. Everyone on Inisherin is crazy.

She isn’t wrong. Almost every incidental character in the film is either exceedingly nosy, rude, abusive and self-important, or otherwise insufferable. And despite her departure, she never stops offering her love and compassion, even in the letter she sends later. Nevertheless, her departure signals a turning point. Without the rules and structure she provided, Pádraic starts to become untethered. He lets horses and his beloved pet donkey into the house, one of many instances in which the film suggests he is more comfortable around animals than when navigating the intricacies of human connection — though he retains an almost painful need for friendship and support.

An image depicting Pádraic walking with his beloved donkey through the Irish countryside.
Pádraic and his beloved donkey.

The film had me tightly in its grasp at this point. Pádraic, in despair at his isolation, is an increasingly sympathetic character, while Colm’s actions are beginning to look more like mental illness.

But then the film throws a curveball: Pádraic’s pet donkey chokes to death on one of the freshly-severed fingers Colm has been throwing at Pádraic’s door over the course of the film, marking a tonal shift away from an ingenious mixture of dark hilarity and deep, painful sorrow toward a bleaker home stretch.

When this happened, I didn’t know what to think. Every other event in “Inisherin” is motivated, even if those motivations are sometimes difficult to decipher. But here was an event ruled purely by chance, a cosmic joke played on both characters.

Understandably, Pádraic is infuriated; for the first time, we see him shed his need for affection and companionship. The accrued hurt and anger from Colm’s rejections, coupled with the traumatic loss of his donkey, burst out in the form of violence. He sets Colm’s house on fire, taking care only to ensure that Colm’s dog is safely out of harm’s way.

An image that shows Colm sitting fornlorn in his home while Pádraic peers through a window at him.
Some images don’t need a caption.

One of the worst feelings a filmgoer can experience is the sensation of watching a brilliant film fall to pieces in its final minutes, and as Colm’s house erupted in flames (with oddly CG-augmented fire??) I feared that was happening to me. In a film almost single-mindedly occupied with motivations — of human relationships, of daily life, even of suicide — what was the meaning behind such a strikingly unmotivated event, other than to draw the film toward a bombastic conclusion?

But as I have thought about the ending in the days since, I have come to the realization that the donkey’s death, so tied to the characters’ central conflict and yet apart from it, is emblematic of the film’s attitude toward conflict and tragedy. Colm’s initial actions are intended only to protect his own interests, but they ultimately accomplish the opposite, robbing him of his ability to play music and engulfing those around him in a gradually widening circle of chaos. Siobhán, in declining the advances of one side character while treating him like the unimportant comic relief figure he appears to be, unwittingly serves as at least a partial motivation for that character’s suicide. And Pádraic, in doing everything he can conceive of to repair his most treasured relationship, sends Colm over the edge into self-mutilation. Motivations, it seems, don’t really matter. In the end, our actions always cause pain to someone. But amidst this pain and suffering, what we can control is our ability to show compassion (Siobhán was right!).

Perhaps this way of looking at the film, which sees conflict not as the collision of differing motivations but as a series of non-sequiturs with consequences that are wholly disconnected from intentions, explains its strangest and funniest dialogue: the final lines of the film.

“Thank you for looking after my dog anyway,” Colm says after surviving the house burning.

“Any time,” says Pádraic.

Other ravings

There are a few aspects of this film I wasn’t able to fit into this discussion. Dominic (Barry Keoghan in a characteristically off-kilter performance), the character who commits suicide, is probably worth an analysis all his own. However, I mostly see him as a foil for Pádraic’s self-absorbed neediness and ineptitude and as a late-film symbol of loneliness and unintended consequences. He isn’t quite a fully-formed character in my view, and I don’t have a lot to say about him. But coming back around to the film’s nature as a kind of Rorschach Test, I’m sure there are people who will identify with him and use him as their anchor for understanding the film.

The film’s setting is interesting but a bit odd — I’m referring to the repeated references to the Irish Civil War. I’m not a native Irishman, so perhaps this makes more sense to people who have a stronger sense of the culture and history of the island (though I don’t think I’m a slouch in that regard), but the connection between the plot and the war seems to be little more than “here is a reference to a large-scale conflict, and here is that conflict (supposedly) in microcosm without any direct parallels that would seem to justify that connection.” Other than the fact that war happens, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of that. The film does not seem to have anything to say about war specifically, so while I suppose a gentle correlation to the civil war adds a bit of intriguing background noise, I don’t see any depth there that rivals every other aspect of the film. (Side note: I wrote this before spotting this article, which strives to explain the significance of the war within the story but doesn’t really say anything more complex than what I’ve written here. Points for both of us using the word “microcosm,” though.)

One other bone to pick — not with the film, but with the commentary from critics. This film has received the acclaim it deserves, but most critics spend a lot of time hyping its status as a kind of reunion for McDonagh, Farrell, and Gleeson, who last worked together on 2008’s “In Bruges,” without acknowledging the film’s kinship to another Gleeson and McDonagh joint: “Calvary,” released in 2014.

Gleeson and Kelly Reilly in “Calvary.”

The McDonagh who directed “Calvary” is actually Martin McDonagh’s brother, John Michael McDonagh. As in “Inisherin,” that film features Gleeson as a tired, increasingly fatalistic man with a good heart who finds himself in conflict with residents of his small Irish town. His home doesn’t burn down in that film: his church does (he plays the town priest) after a disgruntled parishioner sets it ablaze. Suicide and depression are prominent themes in both films, and both films feature a central conflict between two men, one of whom is largely in the dark about the extent of the conflict for much of the runtime. Both films end in a beachside confrontation. At their core, both films are set in motion by a seemingly arbitrary decision by one character to make an enemy of the other. Both films also take pains to avoid hamming it up with traditional Irish music, a decision that Martin and the press seem to be selling as a unique, defining feature of “Inisherin.”

I’m not saying there is any funny business here; despite their similarities, these are different films with different things to say about the world. But a little appreciation for John Michael’s superb work wouldn’t be out of place. It would be absurd to say Martin was not inspired in some way, shape or form by his brother’s film, just as it would be absurd to ignore Calvary as an early evocation of the world-weariness that Gleeson so expertly portrays in “Inisherin.”

I mean, come on. John Michael’s own (brief) Wikipedia entry can’t help but refer to him right at the top as “the older brother of playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh.” Must we continue to render him invisible in his brother’s shadow?

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