And maybe there are banshees too. I just don’t think they scream to portend death anymore. I think they just sit back amused and observe.
At first glance, The Banshees of Inisherin is a simple bromance breakup saga set on a fictional island where, in 1923, the inhabitants engage in quotidian pastimes while the Irish Civil War rages on the mainland. The main character Padraic (Colin Farrell) is an everyman: a humble and completely inoffensive fellow, about whom there is ostensibly nothing to dislike. His bland, innocuous existence is thrown off balance in the first act when his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) unceremoniously decides, without animosity, that he simply “doesn’t like” Padraic, and so won’t be drinking down the pub with him anymore. Padraic’s response to Colm’s rejection quickly escalates into a full-blown existential crisis. Martin McDonagh’s fable plumbs the depths of human nature and illustrates why and how ordinary people can stumble into mischief and mass destruction.
Padraic goes through the usual stages of grief, starting with disbelief and denial. At first, he convinces himself that Colm’s rejection is an April Fool’s ruse. But when he realises that Colm’s snub is real, Padraic’s response mutates into first anger and then a foetid depression that transforms him into a morbid and socially destructive human being. The tragedy is that if Padraic could only distance himself from the immediate sting of rejection, he could benefit from Colm’s insights. Colm has realised that life is too precious to waste on chit-chat, when he could be adding something of value to the world: “and by Wednesday there’ll be a new tune in the world, which wouldn’t’ve been there if I’d spent the week listening to your bollocks.” Music is Colm’s raison d’être—composing, playing and teaching it. His music is the life of the pub and an inspiration to listeners and fellow musicians. But making things means choosing—and all choice involves the negation of that which has not been chosen.
Two leitmotifs run throughout the film—the sound of cannon fire and gunshots from the war on the mainland and the chiming of clocks. Both remind us of life’s transience. Like a Buddhist, Colm exhibits a profound self-knowledge that allows him to forget himself and become absorbed in artistic creation.
In contrast to Colm, Padraic’s egocentrism makes him defensive and incapable of honest self-evaluation. His wounded ego is so all-consuming that he loses perspective on both the value of his own life and on other people’s needs and motives. When Padraic’s sister Siobhan responds to Colm’s wake-up call and decides to leave Inishirin to become a librarian on the mainland, Padraic can only lament his own loss and is incapable of celebrating her opportunity. Both she and her brother like to read, but while books have made Siobhan both highly intelligent and passionate enough to dedicate her life to their curation, Padraic has used books as mere idle amusement, an escape from self-improvement.
While Padraic struggles to come to terms with Colm’s indifference to him, Colm makes it abundantly clear that he bears no grudge, nor does he have any ill will towards Padraic. Apart from no longer wanting to waste his precious time listening to Padraic’s dull chatter, Colm’s behaviour towards him is the epitome of compassion. Colm tells him that he has a tremendous sense that time is slipping away from him and a desire to spend the time he has left thinking and composing, rather than listening to Padraic’s dull natter. But he adds that he is genuinely sorry about this. In one scene, some locals are gossiping about Padraic and about how Colm stopped talking to him overnight because he “aways was a bit that way” (dull). Colm, concerned Padraic might overhear this, shuts it down instantly by shouting, “stop talking about him!”
After Padraic refuses to let things drop, Colm grows so desperate that he threatens to injure himself if Colm does not leave him in peace. Colm tells Padraic that, if his former friend bothers him again, he will use his shears to cut a finger off his left hand—his fiddle hand—and give it to him. He reiterates that he doesn’t want to hurt Padraic’s feelings, but he feels that this is the only option left to him.
Colm ends up cutting off first one finger, and later the other four because of Padraic’s insistence on speaking to him. Despite this, Colm does not dwell on his own mutilation or grow hostile or resentful towards Padraic. He continues happily plucking out tunes on another musician’s fiddle with his good hand and conducts the student musicians with the bloody stump of his left hand.
Paradoxically, Padraic is the embittered one. He dwells upon the fact that Colm’s finger inadvertently killed his donkey (who attempted to swallow it). He is so consumed by self-pity that he cannot see Colm’s far greater loss. Even so, Colm stands up for Padraic when the callous police officer Peadar begins to pick on him: “Leave him Peadar. His donkey’s just died.” When Peadar continues to taunt Padraic, Colm smashes the old bully in the face. Later, Colm confesses his sins to the local priest, stating that one of them is “definitely pride, this time. I killed a miniature donkey. It was an accident, but I do feel bad about it.” One cannot help but marvel at Colm’s curious lack of resentment and almost saintlike detachment from his mortal flesh.
And yet, despite Colm’s unrelenting kindness, he is not nice. And this is a good thing. Niceness is overrated.
When Padraic is still in the early throes of heartbreak, he decides to ask the fellows at the pub whether they agree that he is dull. They say that Colm was “always more of a thinker.” When Padraic retorts that he is also a thinker, locals Jonjo and Gerry disagree. Colm’s sister is prone to thinking, they opine, but Padraic himself is “more one of life’s good guys.” Not long afterwards, Padraic drunkenly confronts Colm at the pub. He says Colm “used to be nice” but now he is not. “Ah well then,” says Colm, “I guess niceness just doesn’t last then, does it, Padraic?” He explains that what does last is music, paintings and poetry. No historical person is remembered for how nice they were. There are shades of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra here: “And, whoever must be a creator in good and evil, verily, he must first be an annihilator and break values. Thus, the highest evil belongs to the highest goodness: but this is creative.” Yet Colm takes the destruction upon himself rather than inflicting it on others. No matter how much his former friend damages him, Colm never demonizes Padraic nor seeks revenge. Colm’s destruction of their friendship is a mere by-product of his creative energies and is not done for its own sake.
The film’s re-evaluation of niceness is well timed in an era in which ubiquitous rainbow-festooned Orwellian platitudes like Be Kind pass for meaningful discourse. Self-censoring any dissenting opinion that might be construed as offensive seems to be a new civic virtue. I am reminded of what Manhattan Institute Fellow Leor Sapir said in a recent interview. The context was a discussion about trans policy, but it could just as easily have been any controversial public issue:
so many of the policies on the ground depend on left-of-centre voters … who just want to be kind. For them, all of morality reduces to the imperative “be kind.” And “be kind” they interpret as “don’t be judgemental.” And “don’t be judgemental” they interpret as “don’t care what somebody else is doing if it doesn’t affect you personally.” At bottom, it’s a kind of apathy. The philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville famously warned in his book Democracy in America that this is what democratic societies tend to produce—this kind of individualism and apathy, a total lack of concern for anything that doesn’t directly affect me.
Padraic is only kind because he is too dull to risk any value judgement or make any choice. Choosing everything is identical to choosing nothing. It is the epitome of blandness because nothing is permitted to stand out or above anything else. If everything is of equal value, then values lose all meaning.
Near the end of the film, Padraic loses control and burns down Colm’s house, with him inside it. In the final scene, we see that Colm has managed to escape and is standing on the shoreline as his cottage smoulders, with all his music inside. When Padraic approaches Colm on the beach, all the older man has to say is, “I am sorry about your donkey, Padraic. Honestly, I am.”
Padraic’s reply shows that he is still cognizant only of himself. He says, “I was nice before all this. I don’t know what I am now.” Colm reassures him that he is still nice; he is “just dull.” He also thanks Padraic for “looking after my dog”—rather than letting the pet burn with the house. Padraic has done things that most people would consider evil. But, as Hannah Arendt has argued, the evil man’s main attribute is not cruelty or maliciousness, but his sheer banality. Arendt described Adolph Eichmann as a “terrifyingly normal” human being who simply did not think deeply about what he was doing. For her, totalitarianism is not about monstruous people—it is about normal people who stick to a morbid, dehumanizing way of thinking.
It is tempting to see evildoers as possessed, inhuman or psychotic. But, as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, this outlook is dangerous because it can easily be misused by weak people to demonise their enemies. Colm refuses to do this to Padraic. By contrast, Padraic demonises Colm, seeing him as the evil one, the one who is “not nice.” As the story unfolds, we realise that this is an inversion of the truth.
Nietzsche argued that the concept of evil arose from the negative emotions of envy, hatred and resentment (he uses the French term ressentiment). It is tempting to view Colm’s behaviour as evil—it is the opposite of how we would expect any good friend to act. However, for Nietzsche, the concepts of good and evil contribute to an unhealthy view of life in which relief from suffering is wrongly valued more than self-expression and accomplishments. For this reason, Nietzsche believed that we should seek to move beyond judgements of good and evil.
Banshees hints that evil is the product of individuals who are insensitive to anything beyond their own noses: it is the absence of all that is life-affirming and creative, a force that is parasitic on the creative. Beneath Padraic’s apparent hatred is a deep love for Colm. Having no creative vitality of his own, an evil man both loves and resents everything and everyone vibrant and alive.
This is a key feature of narcissistic personality disorder. A narcissistic injury is a wound to the individual’s fragile and dysfunctional ego. As psychologist Sam Vaknin points out, narcissists are parasites on other people, who resent their own dependency and dread possible disruptions to their narcissistic supply. Lacking awareness of his (or her) own creative potential, the narcissist is consumed by pathological envy. Consequently, for him, creative, life-giving forces and people serve only as a mirror that reflects his own inadequacy.
This perspective overlaps with a Neoplatonist view of evil. Contrary to ancient Manichean dualism—in which the universe is the product of an ongoing battle between two coequal forces (God and the Prince of Darkness)—Neoplatonists did not see evil as an independent substance or property. Instead, their founder Plotinus conceives of it as a privation of substance, form and goodness. For instance, sickness is just the privation of health and sin a privation of virtue. Evil is simply a lack of goodness.
In Irish folklore, a banshee is a female spirit who heralds the death of a family member, usually by screaming or wailing. Banshees is a profound allegory about the psychology of human destruction and war, as well as a rousing existentialist call to embrace our potential and make something of the short and precious time we have for living.