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The Banshees of Inisherin

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Oscar Wilde once said, “True friends stab you in the front.”

By that measure, Colm Doherty is a true friend indeed.

Every day for years, Colm and Pádraic Súilleabháin would share an afternoon pint on this windy Irish island. Their habits were as reliable as the tides, as the seasons, as the sun itself.

And then one afternoon, when a smiling Pádraic comes to collect Colm for their walk to the pub, Colm refuses to come. He refuses, even, to speak.

Pádraic, puzzled, goes back home and talks with his sister, Siobhán.

“Maybe he just don’t like you anymore,” she teases him.

But it’s no joke.

Not to Colm, who coldly confirms Siobhán’s words, using almost identical ones. “I just don’t like you no more,” he says.

Not to Pád, who structured his days around his best friend; who loved to talk with Colm for hours at a time; who can’t quite believe that this cord of friendship could be so suddenly, so unreasonably, be broken.

It’s no joke to this small 1920s village, either.

Tight-knit communities are complex things, where such cords weave through its every member and bind them close. A feud between Pád and Colm touches Siobhán, the men at the pub, the ladies on the street, even the island’s animals. Relationships form a fabric—a tapestry that can stretch through years, decades, even generations. When one cord breaks, the fabric feels it. The thing can come undone.

I just don’t like you no more, Colm says. Six words, spoken barely above a whisper. But those six words shake Pád to his core. And before its echoes have faded, the island itself will tremble.

Positive Elements

Pád is a simple man, in both the best and worst of ways. Yes, his conversations can be a bit tedious. But he enjoys his life and all its simple pleasures: meals with his sister; caring for his miniature donkey, Jenny; drinking at the pub with Colm. Everyone likes him. He’s nice.

But given that Pád isn’t exactly the quickest bunny in the den, it’s also nice that he’s got his sister, Siobhan, to keep him company and keep him (as much as she can) in line. She’s the level head in the Súilleabháin house, and Pád certainly needs one.

The movie upends both of these redeemable traits as it pushes from comedy to tragedy. Pád’s niceness gets twisted by confusion and anger. Siobhan’s common sense can only protect Pád for so long.

Still, we see glimmers of Pád’s core decency even when the movie is at its most bleak. We could argue that embedded in Banshees is something of a reminder how our own pain can twist us just as surely as sin, and we should be mindful of that truism when we run into people who cause us pain.

Spiritual Elements

The Banshees of Inisherin takes place in 1923’s Ireland—a deeply Catholic country—and pretty much everyone on this small island celebrates Mass when the traveling priest is in town. We see parishioners participate in Mass a couple of times, and Colm hops into the confessional twice to confess his sins. (There’s no attempt at secrecy; Colm and the priest can both see each other and talk like longtime acquaintances.) A statue of the Virgin Mary stands towering at an island crossroad, and crosses hang on various walls. We hear several references to prayer. A man is told that mutilating his own body is a sin.

But the film hints at a darker, eerier sort of spirituality at work as well.

The Banshees of Inisherin takes its name from a song that Colm is writing. He uses the title mainly because of its series of “sh” words. But the banshee is an important part of Irish folklore—a spirit that screams or wails when someone dies or is about to die. (They’re often associated with important families.)

Mrs. McCormick is no spirit: She’s a cantankerous old woman who smokes a pipe and sometimes stops by for a visit (even though some have been known to hide when she comes a-calling). And while she feels like just a colorful character at the beginning of the movie—a bit of cinematic window-dressing—her significance seems to grow as the movie gets darker. And at one point, she makes a very banshee-like prediction: A person will soon die on the island. Perhaps two.

When Pád tells her that that’s not a very nice thing to say, she says, “I wasn’t trying to be nice. I was trying to be accurate.”

Sexual Content

A young lad named Dominic comes off as a bit of a creep. He thinks and talks about sex almost constantly, and he asks Pád whether he’s ever seen Siobhan naked. (Pád tells him that the conversation makes him uncomfortable.) Dominic seems to have deeper feelings for Siobhan, too, emotions that come out in a an unexpectedly tender way.

A couple of guys see a man passed out in a chair, completely naked except for his hat. The camera lingers on this deeply uncomfortable scene (in an explicit effort to make the audience feel the onlookers’ own discomfort).

Colm and the priest talk about Colm’s “impure thoughts” in the confines of a confessional. The conversation turns to whether either of them has ever had impure thoughts about other men. The film doesn’t say that either man has such leanings, but the priest strongly objects to even suggesting such a thing and summarily tosses Colm out of the confessional.

[Spoiler Warning] It’s surmised that a man has been sexually abusing his son.

Violent Content

The Banshees of Inisherin takes place during the waning days of the Irish Civil War—likely an intentional mirroring of the strife between friends we see on the island. Occasionally, island residents cast a glance to the “mainland” (even though, of course, Ireland itself is an island) and see wartime explosions.

As for violence on the island itself … well, you get some.

[Spoiler Warning] A man chops off several of his own fingers, and he throws them at a door. (We see the bloody mark left by one.) We see the hand in a couple of different states of mangled-ness. The fingers are left on the ground on someone’s property. An animal dies after trying to swallow one. (We see vomit around the animal, as well as what looks like an organ of some kind.)

A house is set on fire with a man inside it. A man drowns, apparently by suicide. (We see the corpse.) People beat each other up, and one is pretty much coldcocked. A man pushes another out of the way. We hear that a man physically abused his son. We learn at the confessional that Colm deals with despair and depression—moods that could involve self-harm.

Crude or Profane Language

At least 50 f-words (or Irish variations thereof) and around seven or eight s-words (or Irish variations thereof). We also hear “h—,” “f-g” and the British profanity “b–locks.” God’s name is misused three times, and Jesus’ name is abused five times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

The entire plot of The Banshees of Inisherin is precipitated by Pád’s and Colm’s daily trip to the pub for a pint. That pub is clearly a center for social activity, and we see its interior (often filled with a bevy of drinkers) plenty during the course of the film.

While Pád’s daily pint is associated with happy, friendly times, we hear that when Pád turns to whisky, his mood is different. He drinks more (or the alcohol affects him more). He drinks the beverage during the film, of course, and we watch as he grows angrier and, apparently, more belligerent as he drinks. Later, Pád apologizes for anything he might’ve said to Colm; he doesn’t remember the evening well at all.

Pád and Dominic drink to excess elsewhere, too. Indeed, Pád seems to gravitate more and more to alcohol as the movie wears on. One man seems to be passed out at his own house. (Two visitors do their best to sneak around without waking him.)

Other Negative Elements

We hear quite a bit about the bathroom habits of various animals, especially Jenny (Pád’s miniature donkey). These habits are particularly pressing, given that Pád is prone to allow the animal into the house, especially when he’s depressed.

A town shopkeeper is a notorious gossip, and she gets a little bent out of shape if her customers aren’t forthcoming with news. (She opens other people’s mail, too.) Pád’s encouraged to gossip a bit himself—with painful consequences.

Colm is, of course, really mean to Pád when he rejects the latter’s friendship. The priest reprimands him for it. “It’s not a sin, is it, Father?” Colm asks. The priest admits it’s not—but that it “isn’t very nice, either.”

Pád tells a wicked lie.


Is it better to be good or be great?

Pád is, by all accounts, a good person. A nice person. Everyone seems to like him, even if some find his conversations a little tedious and his mind a little slow. When Colm rejects him, it feels as though Colm’s kicked a puppy.

Colm, though, wants to be a great person—or, at least, as great as he can be on this backward island. He wants more from life than tedious conversations with Pád at the pub. He wants to talk with people of substance and ideas. He wants to do something of value, something important, something that will outlive him.

“The Banshees of Inisherin,” the song he’s writing, is his bid for that tiny bit of immortality. And that song will never get written if he’s spending his afternoons listening to Pád talk about his donkey’s poop.

When a drunken Pád asks Colm why he stopped being nice to him, Colm replies that nice never did anything of value. Nice people are never remembered.

My father was nice, Pád says. My mother was nice. I remember them.

The Banshees of Inisherin packs a wallop. Though its story is intimate and its setting remote, Banshees carries an urgency and power with it. Perhaps that’s because as distant as this world is to us, we all can see ourselves in Pád’s shoes … and Colm’s. Most of us know rejection. Most of us have rejected. We’ve wanted more and been fine with less. And sometimes, the relationships we experience can be painful.

Yes, the movie has problems. Plenty of problems. The movie’s serene setting and relatively small stakes deceive us, making its moments of bloody brutality feel all the more brutal. Most of us, I’d imagine, can stomach hundreds of destroyed superhero worlds more easily than we can a severed finger here.

Needless to say, this is not a film for children.

But its writing, acting and cinematographic oomph practically guarantee we’ll hear plenty about this come awards season. It’s a movie you think about afterward. You talk about after (perhaps, if you’re that sort of person, over a pint at the pub).

And perhaps it even comes with a few reminders, as well: We should never take for granted the people in our lives. We should never underestimate the importance of kindness. And when we experience pain, we should take care what we do with it—to not let it twist it into something we’re not, something we never were meant to be.

Banshees are known for their keening wail when someone dies. But when a friendship dies? It’s not just the banshees who scream.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.