As my film taste buds developed, I grew really fond of Martin McDonagh. His works like In Bruges (2008) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) were those exceptional films that I often reminisce about. When you watch hundreds of films per year, the ones that still stick in your mind always have some special qualities. McDonagh’s directorial work only includes four films so far, adding Seven Psychopaths (2012) to the mentioned list, along with the newest creation: a story about a friendship. Or maybe just a story about despair.
Pádraic Súilleabháin: I am not putting me donkey outside when I’m sad, okay?
For me, the dialog seems to be the key in McDonagh’s work, but not like in Linklater’s Before trilogy, where the dialog is the main plot device, where words have a performative aspect. McDonagh’s characters don’t say much, but when they do, it stays with you. The story takes place in 1923, on the fictional island of Inisherin, while the real-life locations included breathtaking Inishmore and Achill Island. When I saw the first astounding sceneries, the first thought that came to my mind was—John Ford would have liked this! I wasn’t surprised when I read later that the cinematographer Ben Davis used Western-inspired imagery, taking inspiration from classics such as The Searchers (1956). Ford and Kurosawa’s wide shots, often with characters moving across the screen somewhere on the horizon, are paid homage here as well.
Ford’s wide shots were a clear inspiration for the film’s cinematography
In the world of Ford’s The Searchers, you can either stay inside your shelter, or go out into the wild. McDonagh and Davis used a similar feeling of a safe haven for our characters. The world outside is overwhelming, and your house and a local pub provide you with shelter from the storm of life. Ford often used doors and posts to frame his characters in a liminal setting, between the safe haven inside and the open space of the world outside.
John Ford’s framing of the characters in liminal settings
Davis’s and McDonagh’s liminal portrayals of characters
In aesthetics, a liminal space captures eerie and often surreal spaces, capturing transitional places unsettlingly devoid of people, such as stairwells, hotels, or roads. Remember Kubrick’s The Shining and hundreds of empty hotel corridors? That uncanny feeling of a certain void reaching out to you is often emphasized by such shots. Here, the whole island has a handful of people. The main character’s sister is moving away from the island, which functions as a world of its own. It’s eerily empty, and in such a landscape, a single human being can seem supernatural, not belonging to the realm of nature. This is the very characterization McDonagh used to portray the elderly banshee-like woman in the film, who prophesizes doom.
Liminal space and the uncanniness of characters
You know that the film has a lot to offer when I still haven’t talked about the story itself, reuniting Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell after their performance in In Bruges. Picture a wonderful, green landscape. It’s two o’clock, and it’s time for a pint of beer in the local pub. Just like every day. Pádraic Súilleabháin (played by Colin Farrell, with a name that would be translated to English as plain old Patrick Sullivan) goes to pick up his friend, the local folk musician Colm Doherty (played by Brendan Gleeson), but he just ignores him. After being hassled for days, Colm finally tells Pádraic he doesn’t like him anymore. He considers Pádraic dull and wants to compose and play music and be remembered by it. Pádraic grows increasingly distressed, while Colm’s stubborn resistance becomes even greater, giving Pádraic an ultimatum: every time he bothers him, he will cut off one of his own left fingers—fiddle fingers—with a pair of sheep shears. We’ll stop here, let’s not bother Colm anymore.
Priest: Do you think God gives a damn about miniature donkeys, Colm?
Colm Doherty: I fear he doesn’t. And I fear that’s where it’s all gone wrong.
Pádraic’s life is a simple one. He has a pet donkey and he takes care of his livestock. A pint of beer every day, and conversations with his sister. He seems like a nice fellow. But is being nice enough? Colm doesn’t think so. He claims that people are remembered because of their achievements, art, and music. “Niceness doesn’t last”, claims Colm. He continues: “Remember Siobhan and your niceness? No one will. In fifty years’ time, no one will remember any of us. Yet the music of a man who lived two centuries ago…” After the fierce debate on niceness, McDonagh masterfully transitions to Pádraic waking up next to a large painting of Jesus. Pádraic is winning the argument every day without even knowing it.
“Niceness doesn’t last“ or does it?
Colm apparently isn’t that smart and profound, since Siobhan corrects him: Mozart wasn’t a 17th-century composer, but an 18th-century one. However, music does seem to last, especially in this case. Namely, Gleeson is a real-life fiddle and mandolin player, who performed his music in this film, and was credited for writing and performing the tune Colm composes throughout the film, “The Banshees of Inisherin”. The soundtrack was composed by Carter Burwell, who has consistently collaborated with the Coen brothers, and, curiously, Gleeson has sung “The Unfortunate Rake” for their film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018). Apparently, McDonagh didn’t want Irish music for the film since everything else was Irish, so Burwell wrote a slow-walking music piece for Pádraic, depicting him “almost like a Disney character”, using celesta, marimba, harp, and glockenspiel—instruments found in elementary school.
Colm Doherty: The other night, two hours, you spent talking to me about the things you found in your little donkey’s shite that day. Two hours, Padraic. I timed it.
Pádraic Súilleabháin: Well it wasn’t me little donkey’s shite, was it? It was me pony’s shite. Which shows how much you were listenin’.
The dialog itself is sometimes harsh, and sometimes extremely funny, alternating between ups and downs. Serious topics of depression and abuse are tackled with few words, while ordinary topics might be talked about for minutes. The film itself is happening at the end of the civil war, mirroring the unnecessary conflict in its main characters. Sometimes we feel that the best course of action is to hide all our troubles under the carpet. Life on the island is like that, “the word gets around”, but everybody keeps silent about the obvious abuse happening in front of their eyes. The trouble between two friends is the only thing everybody talks about, living Colm’s words to the fullest: “I do worry sometimes I might just be entertaining myself while staving off the inevitable”.
Pádraic Súilleabháin: Some things there’s no moving on from. And I think that’s a good thing.
Sometimes you cannot move on from tragedies in your life, even though Pádraic’s Christian heritage should say otherwise. But moving on does not mean not forgiving; it’s the emotional impact that you might carry on your shoulders until you die. The film will not offer you a resolution, but it will stay with you. And that’s a good thing.
- Cowie, Peter (2004). John Ford and the American West. New York: Harry Abrams.
- Diel, Alexander & Lewis, Michael (2022). Structural deviations drive an uncanny valley of physical places. Journal of Environmental Psychology 82. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494422000895
- Grieving, Tim (2022). Film scores cover a spectrum of sounds and musical colors. Here are a few of note. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-11-17/film-scores-woman-king-she-said-banshees-inisherin
- Holub, Christian (2022). Banshees of Inisherin cinematographer: ‘Let’s make it a John Ford Western’. Entertainment Weekly. https://ew.com/movies/westerns-banshees-of-inisherin-cinematographer-interview/