Film Commentary: The Gratuitous Comic Cruelty of “The Banshees of Inishiren”

By Ed Meek

The island scenery is stunning and the acting is fine, but at its core Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inishiren is bitter and mean-spirited.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in a scene from The Banshees of Inisherin.

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

Irish feuds run like fissures through my family history. My younger brother fled to northern Maine 30 years ago and didn’t even come back for the funerals of our parents. He resented the criticism my parents leveled at him for not being the person they wanted him to be, and he resented my sisters and me for remaining close to our parents. My uncle Dan did not speak to my mother and father for 10 years after his wife lost her engagement ring and my mother had the gall to give her sister a replacement. So, I was disposed to identify when, at the beginning of Martin McDonagh’s film The Banshees of Inisherin, the musician, Colm, (Brendan Gleeson) picks a fight with his friend Pádraic (Colin Farrell).

“I don’t like you no more,” Colm says.

In a conventional plot, this might be the climax, a point when one character turns against another. A guy has sex with his friend’s wife for example. In this case, Colm and Pádraic have been fast friends for years, drinking together every afternoon at the local pub after a long day of composing music (in Colm’s case) and hanging out at his house with his pet miniature donkey (in Pádraic’s case). Pádraic has our sympathy at the opening of the film because he seems a bit simple and childlike. “Are we rowen (fighting) then?” he asks the barkeep. “We must be rowen. I didn’t know we were rowen but we must have been rowen.”

Why would these two ever have been friends?  That is a mystery, but the earnestness of Pádraic, in contrast with Colm’s lugubrious demeanor, makes Colm’s announcement funny. It kicks off a  series of cruel jokes. As in Seven Psychopaths, director/screenwriter McDonagh begins with an unlikely premise, a “what if,” and proceeds from there to magnify the conflict (and in some cases to multiply it). If you buy in, it can feel like a fun carnival ride.

When Pádraic won’t accept Colm’s directive to leave him alone, the fiddler cuts off one of his fingers in spite. And when Pádraic haplessly persists in trying to continue their friendship, Colm keeps on dismembering himself. The fact that musicians, like baseball pitchers, go to great lengths to protect their hands makes this absurd, almost cartoonish. Worse still, one of the digits is swallowed by Pádraic’s cute donkey, killing the poor animal.

These sadistic/masochistic acts are vaguely predicted by an old crone, one of the many ridiculous characters on the island of Inishiren, an “island off an island” as Pádraic’s sister informs us. Inishiren may be beautiful, but it is populated by “mental cases” as Pádraic’s sister further informs us (and her brother) before she leaves for the mainland. The assorted crazies include a policeman who beats both Pádraic and his own developmentally delayed son. When not out terrorizing in the name of the law, he sits home drunk and masturbates wearing nothing but his hat.

Maybe you find all this hilarious, as have many, many critics. What is considered hilarity has undergone a transformation over the past few decades. It is now becoming nasty, increasingly about laughing at someone who has been knocked down. And can’t get up. Of course, cruel humor — the hammer blows of  slapstick — are nothing new. But the preponderance of this kind of humor in horror and violent/action films might have something to do with the rise in cruelty in our culture, particularly social media, which has lowered the floodgates regarding verbal putdowns. Everyone wants to “own” someone else.

And then there is the world of politics. The insulting attacks by Trump on Mexicans and the disabled, the “lock her up” chants, the personal attacks on Nancy Pelosi. All have been explained away as jokes, including young males sucker punching women. Isn’t it hilarious when Republican governors bus
undocumented migrants thousands of miles and drop them off in blue states? We are all supposed to be in on the prank. And of course there is the unfunny cruelty of our perverse system of justice, where DAs and politicians are rewarded for getting tough on crime and immigrants.

If you accept that Inishiren is a microcosm for the mainland and its civil war (the film is set in 1923) maybe you just nod along with the movie, although the feud doesn’t really fit that conflict. A better analogy might be Brexit, where England hurt its own economy in the name of reclaiming its identity to get back at the rest of Europe. Then there’s the Republican Party, whose climate change–denying leaders run for office in order to dismantle the government and destroy the planet — in order to chortle at the liberals.

The island scenery is stunning and the acting is fine, but at its core The Banshees of Inishiren is bitter and mean-spirited. Maybe that’s appropriate because it is symptomatic of a coarsening culture. Or maybe it’s just cynical.

Ed Meek is the author of High Tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).


  1. Mark Favermann on January 6, 2023 at 7:22 pm

    I agree with most of what you said. This film is advertised as a comedy. Clever and at times amusing, but it is surely not a comedy. The stunning natural environment contrasts with the often barbaric even disgusting dismemberment, dank interiors and more awful characters. You left out that the Policeman apparently sexually abused his son as well. With the Irish Civil. War as the backdrop, perhaps this Inishiren story serves as a metaphor to that tragic war. One hundred years later, we can easily make connections to our own often irrational, bitterly divided times.

    • Patrizia on March 7, 2023 at 1:22 am

      I thought it was a Greek tragedy right from the start. Very sad story indeed

  2. Bill Littlefield on January 8, 2023 at 10:29 am

    Ed, I agree that the movie’s full of cruelty. But I also think it takes on an intriguing question. Is Colm right in assuming that in order to do real work, he has to cut himself off (no pun intended) from what’s “dull?” I don’t believe artists and writers have to do that, but lots of artists and writers have believed it. The cruelty and ugliness and unlikely events that fill the movie notwithstanding, I found myself thinking about that question when I’d finished watching it. Then there’s the question of whether what an artist creates is any good, no matter the sacrifices he or she endures to create it….

  3. Gerald Peary on January 11, 2023 at 9:02 am

    I am a bit confused. The grim black comedy of your own spiteful Irish family seems mirrored by what happens in the film. So why aren’t you praising the accuracy of the film instead of condemning it? The film also is sad about all the violence within, not celebrating it. A grim black comedy yes, and an excellent one. But I don’t recall any critic calling the film “hilarious.”

  4. Mickey on January 11, 2023 at 10:03 am

    Although I haven’t seen this film, I’m heartened to read this review. I had intended to see the film, but now I feel I must protect myself from it. This brings to mind another film that was recently released , The Menu with Ralph Fiennes. This is yet another film with gratuitous violence that actually left me feeling shellshocked. I’ve been going out of my way now to warn people who haven’t seen it, and I’m simply confounded by the films need to enact such horrible events. The bottom line for me is that I don’t think there’s justification for using gratuitous violence to move the plot forward in anything , perhaps, but a documentary. There are already enough rough edges around our day-to-day reality.

  5. MJ Doherty on January 11, 2023 at 10:36 am

    it’s a good thing when a film reaches people in vastly different ways. (Testament to a good film in my book.)
    Banshees, found the Irish in me and shoved hard.
    I loved it. Loved when Colm politely thanked Padráic for taking care of his dog, after Padráic had just finished burning down his house. Loved the horse and the donkey in the living room. – the bits poking in between the true tragedies.

    That’s what we do. We laugh at funerals. Not because anything’s funny. Quite the opposite.
    We laugh because it’s the strongest emotion sitting right next door to genuine sadness.

    • Laura Doll on January 24, 2023 at 10:13 pm

      Everything you said!

  6. Steve Elman on January 12, 2023 at 9:21 am

    I have been baffled and annoyed over the years by film marketing, which seems to operate on the basis that serious drama is poison at the box office. A film with a few brief (even grim, as in this case) chuckles is marketed as a comedy, and when you see it in a theater, some filmgoers never seem to realize that what’s on screen is more sober than funny. A light film with a few real smiles becomes a “laugh riot.” A genuine comedy strains the boundaries of metaphor – it leaves audiences “rolling in the aisles.”

    Banshees is a serious film, the story of the wreckage of a friendship on the rocks of boredom and self-importance, and I think the cruelty, rather than being echt Irish, is particular to this situation and these characters. I found the cruelty justified by the drama, and I was deeply moved by the film. It’s on my personal list of five best of the year.

    Ed Meek wonders how Colm and Padraic could have ever become friends – but in a small town like this (and not just in Ireland) friendships happen by inertia – people don’t necessarily choose to be friends, but they find themselves so often in one another’s company that relationships develop without any thought about their nature. That’s one of the factors here – Colm’s pride in his music (which may be a bit inflated) and his sense of his own impending mortality cause him to question the value of the time he spends with Padraic, and Padraic’s desperation at losing what he thinks is a close relationship brings him to desperate measures which are only jokes if you don’t feel the anguish.

  7. Nookshotten on January 12, 2023 at 5:45 pm

    Totally agree with Steve. Saw the movie 3 times. Depression, isolation , cruelty, kindness of the wonderful sister, aging, etc. , etc…. so much to think about from a writer specializing in such topics.

  8. kai maristed on January 14, 2023 at 4:04 pm

    Strangely enough, I agree with much of what everyone here has said, even as they disagree with each other. The film raises questions seldom found in film — especially about artists’ deformed egos, and their fear of impending death before the final creation that will justify their existence. And the priest cracked me up. After seeing it I woke up with horror-images two nights running. Not because of the fingers (senseless, and how did they stop bleeding so fast?) but mainly the heartwrenching scene of the donkey’s death and Padraic’s sorrow. Mickey, yes, stay away! By the way, McDonagh has never been accused of verisimilitude, but this one pairs the sadistic (toward the viewer) with the ridiculous: donkeys are herbivores. They would never pick up a dirty stinky dead finger in their sensitive lips.

  9. A Finneran on March 13, 2023 at 8:27 am

    I enjoyed watching it, but agree with the concerns about gratuitous violence and mean spiritedness among its characters, particularly Colm, the abusive father cop, and the crone. If the purpose was humor, black indeed. But I also found kindness and a strong dose of pathos among the heartfelt characters, although the intellectually challenged ones were the brunt of cruel jokes.

    Is the writing that of a sadistic mind tugging on heartstrings or an Irishman’s display of disgust of his own ethnicity played out?

    A Greek tragedy requires the falling of a hero. Perhaps the hero is Colm who cannot bear the mental boredom anymore and destroys his gift in his battle against that boredom. But I think the true heroine of the film is the sister, endowed with both intelligence and compassion, who does not fall but escapes.

    The influence of Tarantino in filmmaking is a tragedy of its own.

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