The Banshees of Inisherin has received several awards from the Golden Globes and multiple nominations for the forthcoming Academy Awards. It’s not hard to see why: Martin McDonagh’s film captures the complex, deep turmoil of a friendship falling apart. The friendship falls apart because the characters don’t have the framework to work through misunderstandings due to their depressive state.
Colm (Brendan Gleeson) is a violinist who lives off the coast of Ireland during the Irish Civil War. He has abruptly cut ties with his longtime friend Pádraic (Colin Farrell). “I think I need to spend the time I have left thinking and composing,” Colm explains. “Just trying not to listen to any more of the dull things that you have to say for yourself.” When Pádraic asks later on if Colm is depressed, he doesn’t answer. But Pádraic’s suspicions grow when Colm threatens to maim himself, cutting off his fingers one by one, unless Pádraic stops speaking to him. When Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) asks Colm if he’s depressed, he ruefully grins. “I do worry sometimes I’m just entertaining meself while I stave off the inevitable.”
All of Pádraic’s attempts to reconcile his relationship with Colm are met with mean-spirited aggression. “I’ll die with nothin’ to show for it bar the chats I’ve had with a limited man.” Pádraic protests that their relationship was always characterized by “niceness,” and that he will always remember family and friends for the same reason, but Colm insists that whereas the world forgets niceness, art is eternal. The experience causes inner turmoil for Pádraic, who becomes markedly despondent and bitter over the course of the film. “I used to think that’d be a nice thing to be, one of life’s good guys. Now it sounds like one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.” And with Colm visiting a confession booth throughout, one wonders how much guilt over this carries him there.
“How’s the despair?” the priest asks. “It’s back a bit,” Colm replies. Both the priest and Pádraic ask about Colm’s depression but neither seems equipped to address it since the former never presses in on the source of the depression or solutions to help. Pádraic, too, makes light of depression in general, saying people should keep it to themselves. While it may be tempting to plainly take Pádraic’s side, he is not completely innocent. His leading a simpler life by choice and disposition means he doesn’t have the same concerns and troubles as Colm does, as conversations with his sister Siobhán reveal. Pádraic is unwittingly ignorant to what ails Colm and, as time goes on, willfully so.
In an interview at the Oscars, McDonagh indicates that he originally wrote more from Pádraic’s perspective, but balanced the film's outlook during revisions so that both men’s experiences with despair were relatable. In their spiral of compounding wrongs and misunderstandings, perhaps laying blame at the feet of either man isn’t the main point. Rather, it’s how something like depression challenges us to realize negative behavior isn’t always personal; sometimes it's an invitation to help a friend in healing hidden wounds.
From the loss of his friend to his sister’s desire to leave the island, Pádraic becomes depressed as well, admitting as much to Colm by saying, “I wasn’t doing so well! I was doing terrible!” After this self-revelation, Colm seems open to making amends and repairing their relationship, only for things to violently spiral out of control. Both men are unable to meet each other where they are, and so mutual destruction and despair continue to claim them, piece by piece.
Cindy Brandt wrote for Sojourners, “When bad things happen to my close friends, I don’t feel pity — I enter into their pain. I know their story, their history, their personality, so that I am not engaging their pain from a place of superiority, but one of solidarity.”
Colm and Pádraic undergo an escalating exchange of misunderstandings and outright refusals to tap into solidarity. Pádraic attempts to empathize with and express interest in Colm’s sudden drive for music, but Colm coldly dismisses his friend’s feelings and perspective. When Colm recognizes that his carelessness resulted in the death of Pádraic’s prized donkey, Pádraic is too indignant to accept it was an accident — and that it arose from violating Colm’s plea to be left alone.
Even when we experience unfaithful wounds from a faithful friend, superiority can cloud our ability to think and feel objectively for their whole being and context. Colm and Pádraic have lingering traces of respect for each other, like Colm saving Pádraic from being beaten up by a policeman, and Pádraic sparing Colm’s dog despite losing his own pet. However, trimming the branches doesn’t get to the root of discontent. As Roy E. Barsness wrote for Sojourners:
We are made well at our points of surrender, in those deconstructed moments when we fall upon our knees and cry holy, not in an illusory haze found in the mirrors of our self-reflections or in our constructed images of God isolated from the other, but in our solidarity with one another.
The end of The Banshees of Inisherin shows neither man is ready for deeper forgiveness and ultimate reclamation of their friendship. In spite of a bleak future for them, we’re reminded that, in the midst of our pain, we should not be people who forsake our friends or take them for granted, even when that pain makes us lash out untruthfully to ourselves. Instead, we should be ready to stand with and for each other when the banshees of despair threaten to divide.