BANSHEES OF INISHERIN fails to explore the intrigue of its themes

Introduction

Hello Kings and Kweens. This is a review for Banshees of Inisherin. Banshees of Inisherin is a black-comedy drama film directed by Martin McDonagh. You may know McDonagh from his past films Three Billboards, Seven Psychopaths, or In Bruges. That last film is easily his most well-known as well as the most popular and it is relevant to Banshees of Inisherin because it reunites the two leads from In Bruges with the director in this new project. McDonagh’s work after his debut has gotten mixed responses so I was hoping this film would be a return to what made me like his style in the first place.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by Banshees of Inisherin. I think it has a great premise, fascinating themes, and a capable director, but it never amounts to anything worthwhile. There are two things I want to talk about with this movie. I want to talk about its inability to reach a conclusion and I want to talk about the value of themes in assessing a film.

Background

Martin McDonagh is primarily a playwright, but he became well-known to the film world with his 2008 black comedy In Bruges. In Bruges is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s one of those movies where I give the director a lifetime pass on bad projects. I will continue to see all of McDonagh’s movies because if he ever makes something close to In Bruges again, it’ll be worth the time investment. He’s needed this pass more than others because it feels like he’s been chasing the quality of his debut success ever since. His subsequent work has been divisive, isolating, and frankly pretentious.

Seven Psychopaths was an attempt at meta-storytelling similar to a movie like Adaptation where the characters become aware of the fact they are fictional characters in a script. I found that movie to be really up its own ass. I’m told it’s better when you rewatch it, but I haven’t gotten around to doing that. Three Billboards had a lot of problems – specifically one faction of audience goers claimed it excused explicit racism – but I personally thought it was simply boring. I know I’m not the only one. These lesser efforts have been disappointing, but even in his failures McDonagh has shown glimmers of what made In Bruges so refreshing. His sense of humor and tight dialogue is always entertaining but more importantly all of his films are fearless in exploring the dark places of the human psyche when we know we’re on the wrong side of morality. His films possess consistent themes of guilt, self-hatred, and suicide. He’s also been consistently interested in the process of redemption – if it’s possible at all. In short, this Irish filmmaker has evidently been influenced a lot by Catholicism – a religion that associates human creation as the original sin we must spend our entire lives making up for. I will always commend directors who are daring enough to make movies about topics most creators and studios would never go anywhere near, but McDonagh’s problem is the intrigue of the questions he poses are let down by the lackluster exploration into these themes.

Premise

Banshees of Inisherin is about two friends named Padraic and Colm who suddenly become estranged when Colm decides he doesn’t want to talk to Padraic anymore. His reasonings are elusive to Padraic and most of the film is spent following Padraic as he tries to find out what’s wrong with Colm and how to repair their friendship. Ultimately, this is a movie about late-stage depression in adults as they reach the period of life where they’re no longer working toward any real goals and have discovered how their life is will continue to be that way until their death. I really resonated with this premise – even though I’m probably 20 years younger than the intended demographic – because it spoke to a general feeling of wasting your time without knowing what to do about it. And how do your relationships influence this feeling? Is it possible they actually make it worse?  It’s an intriguing question to pose what to do about that dilemma, but the film doesn’t go anywhere beyond its premise.

Aimless, No Conclusion

The biggest drawback to Banshee of Inisherin’s story is the sluggish pace it takes to get going and its inability to end anywhere interesting. The most interesting thing about this movie is the question of what to do with your life when you realize you’re dissatisfied with your circumstance and it’s not clear what you can do about it. For the film to get to this interesting question, it has to setup the circumstances that brought about this thought, and it takes forever to get there. At first, it seems the film is being economical with its time because we never see the moment Colm decides to cut Padraic out of his life. We begin with the day of the estrangement. I thought this was a good decision because the specifics for why Colm chooses to cut out Padraic is not vital to the true story. Even though the specifics aren’t vital, we spend a lot of time watching Padraic trying to figure things out. And I mean a lot of time. If you have seen the trailer for Banshees of Inisherin, you could walk into the theater an hour into this 2-hour movie and you would not have missed much.

There are some other characters and storylines that are setup in the first half of the movie that add some value, but the relationship between Padraic and Colm doesn’t really go anywhere. We see multiple iterations of the same scene throughout the first hour. Padraic says he’s confused why Colm isn’t talking to him, Colm remains reticent about his reasonings while repeating his request for Padraic to leave him alone, then one of them storms off. I understand why these scenes are in the movie. These interactions are believable to how these characters would react to the situation. It wouldn’t make sense for either character to launch into a nuanced philosophical rant about their life-altering depression. It takes time to build to that point. While that’s an understandable rationale for the pacing of the film, it doesn’t make it any less boring.

The bigger issue is whatever faith you place in the film to get somewhere interesting is wasted. Banshees of Inisherin fails to explore its central theme at all and it concludes with a non-ending that makes the entire endeavor feel like a waste of time. I don’t want to spoil the film, but I think I can say that none of the conflicts depicted progress anywhere. There is a side character or two who have some finality to their story, but not in a way that builds toward anything cohesive with the rest of the narrative. To the extent there is something connecting everything in Banshees of Inisherin it is an overbearing depression that’s present in every narrative beat. Believe me, I am the type of person who’d be interested in an oppressively depressing story, so it wasn’t the grimness of the film that bothered me. It was disappointing because the themes were compelling, but they didn’t evolve into anything other than a theme.

Value of themes

This film has been received very positively by some critics and the disconnect between its critical praise and my own negative assessment has renewed an ongoing theory I have about film critics. Sometimes it seems like people associate thought-provoking themes with high-quality filmmaking. Themes are integral to assessing the artistic cohesion of a piece. They are the tool that makes films more than the sum of their parts. Truly great films can tie multiple themes together without losing the cohesion of the narrative which results in a complex work with a lot of depth. As strong as themes can be, they’re not what a traditional audience member gains an attachment to when they watch a movie. Because you don’t need to do a lot to have a theme. In fact, they can often be accidental.

For example, the work of Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson both have a theme of broken families. They often have characters affected by divorce, or estrangement, or find a pseudo family in an alternative community, and etc. This theme exists across their body of work and within individual films, but it would be a mistake to say either filmmaker intended to make movies about broken families. It is simply one theme among many others. Those movies have so much else going on that it would be bizarre to isolate your analysis on one specific theme – unless you were writing your senior year thesis for film school.

Banshees of Inisherin does not have a lot going on. There are themes about friendship, regret, rejection, and self-sabotage, but they’re just themes. Every story has themes. Some themes are interesting. But just because the themes are interesting doesn’t mean the story – or the movie – is worth your time. For example, if you’ve ever had a friend tell you about the dream they had last night you know exactly what I’m talking about. 

I could tell you that I had a really interesting dream. And in the dream I was driving my car, but then I tried to brake, and it became clear the brakes weren’t working so it seemed like I was going to crash, and it was scary. Then I somehow got transported to another location where I was talking to my ex-girlfriend and we just had a fight, so she’s upset with me and I have this feeling I did something wrong, but then I woke up. You could say my dream has a lot of themes. Dreams about a car with no brakes are often associated with an unresolved feeling your life is out of your control. You’re careening toward some future and cannot influence your destination or the pace of when you’ll get there. The fact I had that component of the dream immediately next to a seemingly unconnected second dream about my ex-girlfriend, could suggest my feelings of no control reminded me of that failed relationship. Through this creative editing decision, my brain is revealing how the loss of control in my life was also the source of tension in my past relationship – one where I didn’t feel like I had any control over the relationship and that’s why it failed. To the extent that the dream is interesting, it is because you are in a position where you can credibly analyze it and you are a person who cares about that analysis. For example, if you are a friend of mine or if you have experienced a similar situation. But for most people, that dream is just one of thousands of random dreams people have that don’t have any value beyond the very narrow audience of people who know me and my relationship history.

Banshees of Inisherin is like a dream for people who have depression. If you’ve had that experience, you are already meeting the film at where it wants to go so it doesn’t take much to inspire some level of analysis. You can see a character concerned about how to spend their time and it can inspire all these thoughts you’ve had about how you spend your time. You can see the characters self-sabotage their relationships and their own future and it can remind you of that time you did that to your friends and yourself. Or maybe you had a friend who you lost to depression and seeing the film accurately portray that experience is meaningful to you. All of that is fine. I’m not attempting to discredit the value this movie has provided to other people. I’m just saying that if you’re not already that person – someone who’s content to muse for 2 hours about all the depression you’ve experienced in your life – this movie doesn’t have anything to offer. It is a very thin narrative.

When something interesting happens in the movie, there is no apparent desire to unpack it through the story. It’s hard to give examples without spoiling, so I’ll keep it vague. There is a clear contradiction in Colm’s reasoning for not talking to Padraic and the leverage he uses to ensure Padraic doesn’t talk to him. I would say this contradiction is part of a theme on self-sabotage – potentially self-hatred, as we’ve seen in McDonagh’s other works like In Bruges and Three Billboards. The difference is Banshees of Inisherin doesn’t do anything with that contradiction. It is a fascinating contradiction and a great opportunity to explore the depressive state of this relatable character, but it just doesn’t. Of course, I can sit here and write 5 minutes of content about my analysis about this contradiction and relate it to experiences I’ve had in my life, or compare it to other examples in McDonagh’s work, but again none of that is in the movie. So unless you’re willing to do that, it’s just boring.

Closing Thoughts

Unless you’re someone active on Letterboxd, a member of a film discussion group, or have some friends you can talk about the movie with after seeing it, Banshees of Inisherin isn’t a movie I can recommend. I would give it a 3 out 5. I don’t think it was explicitly bad. It was a little dull which was disappointing because it had so much potential, but it is a fine movie. I liked it more than Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards that’s for sure, but that’s not a real high bar. Banshees of Inisherin cements McDonagh’s body of work as intriguing on the surface but ultimately disappointing. 

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