starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kelly, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan
written and directed by Martin McDonagh
by Walter Chaw I lost a friend this year. Not to death but to no longer having anything of value to offer him, what with time getting short. I understand that. It's happened before for different reasons, and while it's tempting to say it's not my fault, sure, it's my fault. All you need to love in this world unconditionally are your kids, and, well, the last time my late parents told me they loved me, I was nine years old. I remember that because every few years, I've had reason to wonder when it stopped and what exactly I did to deserve it. The myth of family is just that; I think there's a reason people like me build their own families. The only thing unconditional is the love a dog has for you, and people abuse dogs all the time. I have friends who are enervating to me as well, and I wonder if my loyalty to them has everything to do with knowing the pain of being left by the side of the road by the people I have loved--and not wanting to inflict that on anyone else. The fashion of the moment speaks of this as "ending the cycle" of abuse. I'm drawn to artists like Kendrick Lamar who use poetry and what appears to be an extraordinary vulnerability to lay bare their struggles. Even as I write this, I'm noticing the pain I have in the middle knuckle of the third finger on my left hand. I've put down millions of words in the past 20 years, going through multiple keyboards and laptops in that time. I was driven by an obsession not to be forgotten, although I'm losing track of why that matters. The longer I go, the more it seems a blessing to slip beneath the surface, and then it's done. I have a heaviness in my chest sometimes that feels like a stone, worn smooth and round, sitting right there on my sternum. Time is getting short for me. Some days it feels a lot shorter than others. I wonder how small the iris of my perception will become as the possibility of works I'll complete dwindles to not one more. That's it, then someone else closes the cover of your last notebook.
I've never been a fan of Martin McDonagh's work because his plots usually get in the way of what he's trying to say. His The Banshees of Inisherin is exactly what I've always wanted from him. More than that, it's precisely the film I needed to see at the end of my fifth decade. It's the story of a man who realizes he's going to die unmourned and unremembered lashing out at his best friend, whose only crime is distracting him from his solipsistic melancholia. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) is trying to finish a fiddle piece he's thinking of calling "The Banshees of Inisherin," something to leave as a legacy. "I suppose niceness doesn't last, then, does it Pádraic Súilleabháin?" Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) is the friend he's trying not to talk to anymore. Colm tells him what does last: "Music lasts, and paintings last, and poetry lasts... Do you know who we remember for how nice they were in the seventeenth century? Nobody." Pádraic says his mother and father were nice, and his sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), whom he lives with, she's nice, too, and Pádraic will remember all of them for as long as he lives. For Colm, that's not long enough. And because he's so anguished, he promises to cut off a finger on his left hand--the phrasing hand for a right-handed fiddler--every time Pádraic speaks to him. This is how much Colm loves Pádraic. And because Pádraic loves him back, he can't resist talking to him anyway, not to bother or cajole, but to worry, like how we keep picking a scab. Pádraic is not smart, and Colm overestimates his own intellect. In a brilliant moment, Colm waxes on about Mozart, partly to shame Pádraic's ignorance--but then he gets the century in which Mozart was alive wrong, and Siobhan, who likes books as more than performative decoration, puts him in his place.
That's the thing about The Banshees of Inisherin: it describes life as a game where the only rule is kindness. The price for failing to be kind is you make kind people brutal and mean people right. It's a game where there are consequences for failure, too, beyond embarrassment and the emotional scar tissue that hardens over our empathy like a lava flow cools into black rock, shot through with a circulatory system of bloody magma--a roadmap of what's led us here. A finger becomes a hand; a gesture of self-loathing becomes the thing that kills the innocence of everyone around you for having witnessed it. There's a boy on Inisherin, Dominic (Barry Keoghan), whose dad, the constable, beats him with metal pans when he's not abusing him in other ways. Dominic can't seem to govern what he says, but he doesn't have a mean bone in his body. One day Pádraic confesses he's sent away a man from the island out of jealousy over the attention Colm paid to him at the pub the night before, and Dominic says he thought Pádraic was different from the others, i.e., not mean. How sorry he is to be wrong is painted in the desperation on his face. I think we all start out as Dominic, right? And then the people you trust betray you, so you turn to others to fill those gaps, but, being imperfect, all of us, those others can't possibly protect the hope you've buried in them, so they betray you as well. I think there's a reason Johnny Cash agreed to cover Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," to make it his own at the end of his life. You don't get as old as Cash got, as famous as he was or as powerful, without leaving a swath of human wreckage in your wake. There are a few versions of yourself in the collateral, of course, from when you were Dominic, who thought people were better than they could be. Or when you were Pádraic, doing your best to be a good person until it was beaten out of you by the accident of surviving long enough. The moment Pádraic stops trying to be friends with Colm is chilling to watch--not least because of how terrifyingly good Farrell is in portraying both puzzled hurt and icy rage. He flips a switch right after Siobhan, his emotional anchor and protector, leaves for a new life on the mainland and then his last friend falls victim in a pathetic way to Colm's pyrrhic self-mutilations. All the confusion drains out of Pádraic in an instant, and he is reborn as vengeance.
McDonagh's men are bound by love expressible only through violence--violence so poisonous it clears broad perimeters around them and places a metal crown around their hearts. So noxious that nothing else can live in the blast radius of righteous indignation at having been rejected as not interesting enough, valuable enough, or memorable enough. The Banshees of Inisherin is also the funniest movie I've seen in years, its dialogue like steel flechettes packed into a pipe with gunpowder and misanthropy. It's so funny that, initially, you'll be lulled into thinking it's one of those elder-sploitation pieces of shit the British are known for--the feel-good stuff where old-timers stuck in their ways worm their way into our hearts like curmudgeonly parasites. But it's not that. It's got hard edges whittled to razored, frozen cruelty, and it's so sharp it tore me apart without my even noticing. Colm is so desperate to be something that he convinces his best friend Pádraic that Pádraic is nothing. And in the process of reducing Pádraic like this, he turns him bitter, small, resentful. Innocence dies in The Banshees of Inisherin--literally and figuratively--and all that's left alive in this beautiful, idyllic, isolated place are these ugly survivors of unnecessary wars. The funniest thing about the film is none of them will be remembered. Everyone will be forgotten. There is no point to any of the things that are supposed to matter, and too little attention paid to the... Look, Wordsworth said it best in my favourite poem, "Tintern Abbey." He writes, "The best portions of a good man's life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love." And so you carry on with hard choices pushed against your breast. Not whether you'll be left by people you love, that's out of your hands, but as to what your response will be to having your worldview first set, then confirmed, over and over and over again, by these sad people in whom you've planted what you've lost, only to see it disappear once more. "I'm a fool," you could say, and you could live in the salt of it, barren and afraid to trust again. Or you could say, "They're a fool," and nurse what's left of you in a warmth you reserve for the people you've taken for granted--who've kept the fire going while you were out there looking for life in the chests of people afraid of dying.