The Banshees of Inshirin is simple on the surface. Set on a remote Irish island, it is the story of a dull-but-kind man, Pádraic (Colin Farrell), whose best friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) suddenly decides to cease being friends with him. Colm decides that the leisurely pace of island life isn’t enough for him. He wishes to compose music to be remembered by future generations as a way to make meaning in his life. One draw of the movie is the sheer enigmatic nature of this dramatic decision, which is never fully explained. Pádriac has trouble accepting this and tries to force interactions with Colm. Colm responds by promising to cut off one of his fingers each time Pádriac talks to him. This elegantly brutal gesture gives the feeling of dignity, despair, and manipulation all at once.
The attitude of the movie is leisurely, with long pans over the Irish countryside. Early in the movie, it feels beautiful. Later, as Pádriac starts to become isolated from the people he loves, it starts to feel desolate. The austere beauty of the place makes the dark and dramatic actions of each character seem more believable within the story.
The isolation of the island ensures a true face-to-face society, which tends to be idealized in a nostalgic fashion. But Martin McDonagh shows the audience a negative portrayal of such a society. All of his characters seem to lack inherent meaning within their own lives on the island. They have to seek it out in other people or things. His intelligent characters feel trapped without opportunity. His people-focused characters are made friendless and forced into a state of hopelessness.
On the other hand, by forcing characters to seek meaning, the movie questions the nature of meaning in life. Pádraic finds meaning in happiness and his friends, which is why it is so devastating for him when he becomes lonely. Colm is obsessed with legacy, arguing brilliant people are remembered, while nice people are forgotten. Another character finds meaning in love.
The movie is far from perfect. There are thinly drawn characters, like the prophetic hag that calls to mind Macbeth’s witches, the gossipy postmistress, or the bully of a policeman. The key decisions can feel overdramatic. Passing mentions of the Irish civil war can start to drag on as a heavy-handed metaphor for Colm and Pádriac’s fight.
Overall, I think it was a wonderful movie. It can feel overdramatic and slightly pretentious at times, but the acting, sets and costumes are lovely. Most importantly, it is the sort of movie that makes you think.