The Banshees of Inisherin.
A film review & discussion by Kate O’Brien.
This film was directed by Martin McDonagh. It was released in October of 2022.
Spoilers Ahead – Consider yourselves warned.
I will also say now that I believe this review and discussion may be slightly more serious in tone, simply because of the themes that are explored in The Banshees of Inisherin.
I found this film very moving. I found it very emotional. I was crying silently while sitting on my sofa and then a few moments later, another scene had me chuckling. I’ve heard some people say that they dislike this film, some said they found it too long, or boring, and I understand that. I will say now that I would consider this film to be one of those films that you either really enjoy, or you really hate. Personally I loved it. I thought it was extremely thought-provoking, and full of some really beautiful, and subtly poignant performances.
I’ll admit, I’m probably slightly biassed, but I thought that the cast was brilliant.
I’m already a fan of Colin Farrell’s work, but I think this could go down as one of his very best roles. I thought his performance was beautiful, and I will be discussing a key scene later on in this review.
The film stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as Pádraic and Colm. Set on the fictional Inisherin, an island off the west coast of Ireland, at the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923, this film follows Pádraic in his devastation when he learns that Colm does not want to be his friend anymore.
I want to pause here for a moment so that I can talk about this idea. This idea of an entire film being about the breakdown and loss of friendship, particularly the friendship of two grown men, is what drew me in and made me want to watch this film in the first place. Friendships can be essential relationships. We see so many stories about romantic relationships, about family dynamics, but friendships are a really interesting dynamic. You can have lifelong friends, and these people can become as close as family, making new friends, especially as an adult can be challenging, it can also be really exciting. It can be difficult to maintain friendships, especially when you move beyond school or college because you’re no longer in the same place every single day. It is hard to see people when you live far apart, or if you have conflicting work schedules, or if you’re trying to balance family life with work life, friendships can silently slip into the background and this can be very sad.
The idea of living in a remote place, where everyone knows everyone and every day is the same and having a lifelong friend tell you that they just don’t like you anymore, is a concept that I think is brilliant. At its core, that is what this film is about. Colm tells Pádraic that he just “doesn’t like him no more.” Pádraic has not done anything to him. He has not said anything to him. He has not offended him in any way, but Colm has decided he just does not want to be friends anymore. It is so simple, and yet, this core idea allowed The Banshees of Inisherin to explore some really poignant themes.
Pádraic lives with his sister Siobhán. Siobhán is played by Kerry Condon and I must say that she played this part wonderfully. They live a quiet, lonely life in Inisherin. Their parents have passed away so the pair only have each other. Pádraic is kind and well-liked. He is a hard worker. He loves his little donkey Jenny and to Siobhán’s dismay, he even lets her inside their small cottage.
He is not a perfect person, but he is honest and kind. Colm says he is dull and dim, and Pádraic worries that he is in fact dull and dim, but ultimately he is a kind, earnest man.
Colm is a musician. He lives alone with his dog and he has decided that he would like to spend the rest of his days peacefully composing music. Colm wishes to leave a legacy. He wishes to be remembered when he is no longer on this earth. This longing to be remembered is what prompts him to tell Pádraic that he does not want to be friends anymore. Colm’s character is challenging to write about because I am conflicted. In the beginning, I thought that he was being rather harsh, but I could understand where he was coming from. Everyone has a right to live their life in the way that they see fit. Colm has decided that he has about twelve years of life left and he would like to spend them peacefully. He has the right to decide he does not want to be friends with Pádraic anymore, we all have the right to decide who we spend our time with, but as the film went on, I found myself deeply disliking Colm as a character. I find him arrogant and rude, and very mean at times. I think he is a great character in terms of discussion, his actions and his beliefs open up the themes explored in this film. His actions prompted a brilliant discussion when the film was over so I do think his character serves an excellent purpose, but I don’t like this kind of character.
I need to mention Barry Keoghan because he stole this film in my opinion. He played the role of Dominic Kearney, the son of Garda Peadar Kearney (A police officer for any readers not from Ireland.) Dominic is a character who I would liken to Sammy in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers.
He is the kind of character who never really had a chance. Dominic is not the brightest torch, he does not always say the right thing. Sometimes he can be infuriating because of how badly he puts his foot in his mouth, but he has no malicious intentions. He tries to be a friend to Pádraic. He tries to help him through the devastation of the loss of Colm’s friendship. He has a schoolboy crush on Siobhán and he earnestly admits this to her even though he knows that she will never return his feelings. This scene between these two actors was beautiful. My heart went out to Dominic when he confessed his feelings because you could see it all over his face that he already knew he would be rejected, and the way Kerry Condon played Siobhán in this scene was so lovely. She was so kind and so gentle, and she let him down with such grace. She did not laugh or scoff at him, she did not recoil. She just very simply, and very kindly told him that she doesn’t feel the same way. It was a really touching scene. Dominic is abused by his father, and this seems to be a known secret in Inisherin. People feel sorry for Dominic, but his father holds all of the power. I found Keoghan’s performance incredibly earnest and endearing. My heart went out to Dominic and I was devastated by how his arc played out – I’ll return to this in a later point.
Before diving into discussing the themes of this film, I want to talk about the backdrop of the Irish Civil War. I believe this setting is crucial to the film. I don’t think that this film would be the same without the heaviness of war going on in the background. The island is safe. It is far away from the mainland. We see the bright flashes of shots being fired from across the sea, but the Civil War is on the mainland. We are given this idea that Inisherin is a place that belongs to itself. It is removed from the frontlines. If you wanted to, I’m sure you could pretend the Civil War was not happening, but news from the mainland is always a source of curiosity. There is a present fear lurking underneath it all, and I think this is essential to the film. Life is changing. People are fighting. People are dying. People are reevaluating what they want and what is important to them. The tensions and the dangers and the fighting is likely what caused Colm to reevaluate his time and the meaning of his life in the first place. I don’t think the film would have the same impact without this setting.
Let’s discuss the themes of this film. I believe that the themes of this film are ideas of friendship and loss. Ideas of legacy and exploring one’s sense of self. Ideas of loneliness and departure, and ideas of the importance of being remembered vs the importance of being kind. I also think that there is a King Lear quality to both Pádraic and Colm. Pádraic really struggles to accept that Colm does not want to be his friend. He desperately wants things to go back to the way they once were. He cannot understand or accept Colm’s rejection, and his desire to be friends again becomes more and more desperate as the film goes on and he becomes more and more frustrated.
At times viewers may think “My God, just leave the man alone,” but it is not that easy to be rejected for no reason at all. It is also clear to see that this sense of loss and the grief that Pádraic feels causes him to suffer with depression. He is lonely and he is hurt, and nothing can fill that void.
The loneliness gets worse when Siobhán moves to Dublin. Siobhán has nothing left on Inisherin. She loves her brother but her life is empty and lonely. She decides to do something for herself and take a library job in Dublin. The scene where she gets on the boat is a lovely moment. She is wearing a bright yellow coat, which visualises how hopeful she is as it is such a bright colour. This is a great example of how visually stunning this film is. It is full of wide shots of very scenic landscapes. The island feels broad and open, yet sparse all at once.
Siobhán is nervous but excited as she leaves and even though she is sad to leave Pádraic behind, she knows that this is something she must do. Pádraic tries his best to be happy for her, but at night he cries in his bed and wishes she would come home. The emptiness of Pádraic’s days are really emphasised, which only adds to his desperate need to make up with Colm.
Colm’s arc is also one that slowly descends into madness. At the beginning of the film, he seems to be the sensible one even if he seems a bit harsh. He just wants to play the fiddle and compose a song, and as the film goes on he becomes increasingly angry and frustrated that Pádraic cannot seem to just leave him alone. He tells Pádraic that every time he bothers him again, he will take his shears and chop off a finger. Pádraic thinks that he cannot be serious, but Colm was extremely serious. When yet another attempt at reconciliation goes awry, Colm does indeed take his shears and he chops off a finger. He leaves the finger at Pádraic’s house. The film keeps moving and Colm loses all of his fingers. This is where I would liken his arc to the arc of King Lear as Colm is a man who is so obsessed with his own ideas, with his own self-importance, that he is actively destroying himself to make a point. He can no longer play the fiddle, and this is not Pádraic’s fault. Colm’s decision to actually chop off his fingers in order to prove that he is serious is no one’s fault but his. He did not have to go so far, he did not have to be so violent, but he is obsessed with leaving a legacy and being remembered. Being the man who cut off limbs to prove a point is a sure way to make sure that you’re remembered.
I want to talk about a key scene. There is a moment where Pádraic is furious and he decides to confront Colm in the pub. Colm is sitting with Peadar, Dominic’s father who is excited to go to the mainland to witness an execution. Pádraic confronts Colm, he demands to know what is going on. This is when Colm tells Pádraic that he is dull. He is dim, and his conversations bore him. Colm wants to be great, he wants to be remembered. He is a music lover and he wants to be like Mozart, he wants his music to be played centuries later and he won’t build that legacy if he is having dull conversations with Pádraic. Pádraic tells him that he is not nice. He used to be nice, but now he worries that he was actually never nice at all.
Colin Farrel delivers a brilliant performance. It actually moved me to tears. He says that he may be dull, but he is nice, he says his sister Siobhán is nice and he’ll remember her. He remembers his parents, they were nice. He asks Colm what does it say about him if he would rather sit with Peader, a man who beats and molests his own son than him? Colm is unmoved by Pádraic’s words, he says that no one will remember Siobhán because she has not done anything great. He wants to be great. It is a mean and nasty thing to say and I was cheering for Siobhán when she corrected Colm and told him that Mozart toured in the 18th century, not the 17th as he had said.
If he is going to so arrogantly proclaim that he wants to be like Mozart, he should at least get the century right.
This is why I disliked Colm, despite appreciating how his role functioned in the story. I do appreciate how his arc has allowed me to explore some very poignant themes. I don’t like the way Colm decided that his longing to be “great” gives him the right to treat people poorly. He so arrogantly declared that Pádraic is dull, but as Pádraic rightly pointed out, he was happy to still sit beside a man who brashly and brutally beats his own son. I can tell you which man I would rather sit beside, and I’ll give you a hint, it certainly is not Peadar.
There was absolutely no need to be so nasty to Siobhán and declare that she is not important enough to ever be remembered. All of Colm’s actions are focused on the after. He wants to be remembered when he is gone, he wants to leave a legacy, but he never stops to think about the way he is behaving in the present. His actions and his words are causing grief and pain in the present, and this idea that he suddenly had about wanting to be great does not surpass the importance of treating people with kindness and respect. I can appreciate that if this happened then there would be no film, but I am discussing this character in depth, so I will say that there was no reason as to why Colm could not have still been friends with Pádraic and treated him kindly. He could have drank with him less. He could have told Pádraic that he does not want to drink every day, he could have said that he wants to spend more time on his music. He could have still composed his song without being so extreme – however if he did this then there would be no plot, but hopefully you understand the point that I am making.
Peadar is furious that Pádraic announced the way he abuses his son to everyone at the pub. He plans to kill him. He intends to beat him severely, but on his way to Pádraic’s house, he is stopped by Mrs O’Riordan.
I am calling Mrs O’Riordan the banshee of Inisherin. Banshees are an important part of Irish folklore. They are said to be female spirits who announce when to expect a death, as they shriek or wail. If you hear a banshee wailing, someone will die soon – so the legends say.
Mrs O’Riordan is an old woman in the village who always wears black. She is a mysterious figure who seems to just observe all that is going on. Colm writes a song entitled “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Pádraic says there are no banshees on Inisherin. Colm says he thinks there are, only they don’t wail. They stand back watching everything, quiet and amused. It is a great description and it is one that fits Mrs O’Riordan perfectly.
Mrs O’Riordan interrupts Peadar when he is on his way to beat/kill Pádraic. She brings him to the lake and when Peadar looks into the water, he is looking down at the body of his son Dominic. He is lying faceup, dead in the water. His eyes are wide open and around his neck there is a hook. In Dominic’s first scene, he is showing Pádraic this hook, saying that it is a great hook that can be used for hooking all sorts of things. Peadar seems to be filled with emotion when he sees his dead son, although we never get verbal confirmation that he regrets mistreating him.
Dominic’s death broke my heart. I wanted more for him. I wanted him to find happiness. I thought his arc was one of a lifetime of sadness. He never had a chance. Again, Barry Keoghan’s performance was fantastic. It was subtle, and quiet, and so devastating. It is a complex part and it could have easily been a really annoying one. This young lad who always seems to put his foot in his mouth could have been a character that we dreaded seeing, but instead Keoghan played Dominic in a really nuanced way. He does want to be Pádraic’s friend, he does try to help, he does say the wrong thing a lot, but he is kind. He is trying. He just wants some warmth and some love. He is devastated when Pádraic lets him down, he says that he thought Pádraic was different, but he is just like all the rest. There was a deep sadness to Dominic and Keoghan portrayed that beautifully. A part like this could have slipped into the background but Keoghan’s portrayal of Dominic stood out and it stuck with me for a long time.
The thing that brings things to a head is when Pádraic’s donkey Jenny dies because she choked on one of Colm’s fingers. Pádraic is devastated and he is furious. He says that it is time to make things even. Colm has gone too far. He tells Colm that he is going to burn down his house while he is in it. He tells Colm to leave his dog outside, because he has nothing against his dog.
Jenny’s death highlights how out of line Colm’s actions are. His actions and his obsession with leaving behind a legacy has hurt and killed a living thing. He has caused extreme despair in Pádraic’s life. Colm goes to confession, and he asks if God cares about little donkeys.
The priest says that he fears God doesn’t care about little donkeys. Colm says he fears that is where everything went wrong. This is a fantastic line, it is a really poignant moment. Colm wins me back slightly in this moment because he realises that he has done wrong, and he is genuinely sorry about what happened to Jenny. He realises that his longing to leave a legacy was not worth hurting Pádraic this much.
Pádraic does burn the cottage down and he does take the dog, sticking to his word to not do the dog any harm, but he does not actually commit murder because Colm is alive and well standing on the beach the next day. He thanks Pádraic for looking after his dog and he apologises for what happened to Jenny, he says that he really is sorry about that. It seems they have come to a truce.
The film ends with the two men commenting that it seems as though the Civil War is coming to an end, and along with it, it seems that their feud has ended too.
This film moved me. I thought it was beautiful. It made me think about the importance of relationships in my life. I thought about how much I think it is important to be present in the moment, because if we are too focused on the after then we can miss things that are happening in the present. It is absolutely fine to want to do great things. It is fine to have passions, it is fine to want to leave a legacy, but arrogantly deciding that some people are not worth your time is not okay. Being kind and being a decent person is always important. People talk about “being kind,” online all the time, to the point that it can sound flippant, but it is important. I would rather be remembered as someone who was kind and warm, instead of being remembered as someone who was good at xyz, but not that nice.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a beautiful, moving film that brings human emotions to the surface and lays them bare. In many ways, it is so simple, and yet it is a film that dives into very complex themes. It is a poignant story told by a talented cast. It is storytelling at its finest.