The windswept purgatory of Martin McDonagh



Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson star in Martin McDonagh new drama “The Banshees of Inisherin”.

There is no tomorrow in Inisherin. The inhabitants of this bucolic yet barren rock know only wind, rain and cold. Each day is spent tending to whatever menial farmwork is required after which all feelings of tedium are drowned in alcohol at the local pub. The idea that the sun will rise bringing forth a new day is a myth. The ritual of work and drink will continue ad infinitum.

This is the prevailing mood in Martin McDonagh’s new film “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Set on the titular isle off the coast of Ireland in the 1920s, the tiny population is so remote they know almost nothing of the outside world. Inisherin is the universe and everything that exists outside is a mystery. Perhaps this is why all the interpersonal dynamics on the isle have such magnitude. 

Following Pádraic, played by Colin Farrell, a plain Irish man who simply wants to tend his livestock and drink at the local pub. However, things are thrown into complete disarray when his lifelong friend, Colm, played by Brendan Gleeson, abruptly cuts Pádraic off and issues a threat: every time Pádraic talks to him, he will sever one of his own fingers with sheep shears. 

What follows from this simple premise might be one of the best films of the year.

To call “The Banshees of Inisherin” a bleak picture would be an understatement. The film carries an almost Shakespearen darkness to it, intertwining gallows humor with shockingly blunt pessimism. Portents of death abound on this island, beckoning characters to not only a literal demise, but also a thematic one. 

This is in part what makes McDonagh such an effective director. He has little regard for traditionally sacred institutions in society. In his films, they all lead to personal destruction. The church wants to lie to you, the law wants to brutalize you and the nuclear family will abandon you. On Inisherin, Pádraic is simply another man they chose to come after.

Three other crucial characters that help decipher the film’s themes are Pádraic’s intellectual sister Siobhán, the island idiot Dominic and a strange and somewhat ethereal woman known only as Mrs. McCormick. Siobhán is the opposite of all the other islanders. She’s a striver who wants to move up in life and beyond the narrow confines of Inisherin’s weathered cliffs. In many ways, she’s the foil of her well-meaning brother who is a man  doomed by the cosmos to a life of mediocrity. 

Similarly, Dominic is a symbol of innocence. He’s crude and ignored by everyone else but he has a naivety about him which others lack. His genuine nature is contrasted to the pettiness of the masses. This makes his arc all the more tragic the way McDonagh resolves it which harkens back to the thesis of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” which theorizes that innocence will always be lost no matter how hard we try to believe otherwise.

Finally, Mrs. McCormick has more in common with the witches from “Macbeth” than any real person from the 1920s. She has an almost omnipotent view of the island and seems to stand in for McDonagh’s conception of God. She’s a figure of indifference, not caring who lives and who dies but rather regarding it as inevitable and, if anything, taking pleasure in watching the doomed fates of others. 

If traditional Judeo-Christian thought conceptualizes God as all good, McDonagh conceptualizes God as callous and lacking morals. God’s a being who flicks the universe into motion and watches his creation dissolve into chaos, only intervening for his own pleasure. 

There’s no getting around just how depressing McDonagh’s outlook on the world is. Life is just a perpetually purgatory with no absolution. Any pleasure in friendships poor souls like Pádraic get, in friendships or otherwise, will be cut down. The rain and wind will keep battering the island no matter what. There is no tomorrow in Inisherin.