Whenever I see shots of a beautiful part of the world, I think to myself, “How amazing would it be to live there! It wouldn’t matter what I was doing, so long as I had this incredible landscape to look at and appreciate every day.” The Irish countryside, as depicted in Banshees, would definitely be one of those places where a person could see themselves living without a care in the world. Pádraic (Colin Farrell), the anti-hero of the story, certainly fits that description. He’s a happy-go-lucky sort who spends each day enjoying what life has given him and wanting nothing more. He cares for the animals on his farm, which he loves very much. He shares a quaint cottage with his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), who also loves him. Every day at 2:00 PM he gathers his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) for a drink and a smoke at the pub. Until one day Colm refuses to open his door to Pádraic or even acknowledge him. When the two later cross paths, Colm states that he doesn’t like Pádraic anymore and doesn’t want to be friends with him.
Unlike Pádraic, Colm suffers from despair. Living on an island off the coast of Ireland isn’t enough for him. Colm has grown weary of Pádraic and no longer wants to spend his time drinking and chatting aimlessly with him. (Listening to Pádraic talk about what he found in his pony’s dung for two hours apparently was the last straw.) Instead, Colm wants to devote the time he has left (twelve years, to be exact) to thinking and composing. And with that admission, Colm declares their friendship over and done with.
Pádraic is understandably confused about Colm’s behavior. “You liked me yesterday,” he states. “Did I?” Colm replies. Suddenly, a “limited man” (as Colm describes him) has lost his best friend for reasons he doesn’t understand. The crux of the matter is that Colm has decided he wants a purpose-driven life. This makes Pádraic, who is happy as a clam coasting through life, his polar opposite. Regardless of the impact his decision has on Pádraic, Colm believes he must cut ties with Pádraic immediately. The drastic nature of his actions shocks even Siobhán. “You can’t just all of a sudden stop being friends with a fella!” she exclaims to Colm. “Why can’t I?” “Why can’t ya? Because it isn’t nice.” Colm insists that he no longer has a place for dullness in his life. All he wants is a little peace in his heart. Well, you can probably guess what direction this story will go.
As a way of proving the seriousness of his intentions, Colm says he will cut off a finger every time Pádraic goes out of his way to bother him. (Given Colm’s artistic leanings, his nod to Van Gogh seems appropriate.) Unfortunately, Pádraic becomes an emotional basket case without his best friend. (He either acts like a spurned lover or a child, depending on your point of view.) His continual antics drive Colm to cut off one severed finger, then four more. That last act unintentionally causes a death on Pádraic’s farm, an outcome that pushes hin over the edge.
At its core, Banshees is a pitch-black examination of what happens when the best of friends become mortal enemies. Pádraic and Colm may not be lovers, but the fallout of the end of their friendship reminded me of The War of the Roses, another movie that showed unsparingly the damage people who were once close can inflict on each other. Where that movie featured a married couple tearing each other to shreds, Banshees has Colm and Pádraic competing for the title of “most tragic figure on the island”. Fortunately, Siobhán and local goofball Dominic (Barry Keoghan) provide doses of rationality while the two grown men drive each other crazy.
Even though the events in Banshees take a decidedly dark turn, writer-director Martin McDonagh infuses the proceedings with a particularly insightful take on the nature of friendship. Does it matter if a friendship provides no value and just is? Should a friendship be something more than a way to pass the time with someone you like? If a friendship doesn’t align with your life goals, should you end it? Before seeing Banshees, I had never thought about friendship at a metaphysical level. Every friendship has its purpose, whether it’s having a beer or asking profound questions about life. Is the former more important than the latter, or vice versa? Or does it even matter?
As evinced by Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh shows once again how masterful he is at writing pitch-perfect dialog and drawing emotionally searing performances out of his actors. I haven’t seen all of Farrell’s work but his performance in Banshees must be a career highlight. I could probably say the same for Gleeson, Condon and Keoghan. Together, they comprise a quartet that turns in some of the best acting performances of the year. Even the miniature donkey Jenny is a scene stealer. Banshees is an extremely well told tale, equal parts funny, horrifying and sad. It left an indelible mark on me, not because it provides answers, but because it made me ask myself questions about myself and my life that I had never even considered. Highly Recommended.
Banshees is a meditation on friendship. Given that the story includes severed fingers, a dead donkey, police brutality and arson, maybe calling it an “investigation” or “examination” would be more appropriate. Banshees certainly is not a charming comedy of errors, manners or romantic misunderstandings. Instead, it explores friendship in terms of the perceived value to each of the participants.
Before the events in the movie take place, Pádraic and Colm had been friends for a long time, perhaps years. When the movie opens, Colm has decided to end his friendship with Padriac immediately. As he explains to the stunned Pádraic, Colm will no longer spend his time drinking beer and chatting about nothing of consequence. Instead, he will write songs and befriend other musicians, both of which will be more fulfilling than his friendship with Pádraic.
For reasons the movie doesn’t make clear, Colm has been suffering from despair. His decision to cut ties with Pádraic and focus on his music are essentially the result of Colm prioritizing the aspects of his life that are important to him. He enjoyed his friendship with Pádraic, but it didn’t impact his life in a positive way. Colm has concluded that music is the most important thing to him and has chosen to focus on that at the expense of Pádraic. Colm believes that with the twelve years he says has left, he’ll be able to write songs that may outlive him. Spending time with Pádraic was agreeable, but meaningless.
Pádraic, however, doesn’t see his friendship with Colm as meaningless at all. On the contrary, it probably was the most important relationship in his life. (Tied for second are Jenny, his donkey, and his sister). Pádraic looked forward to going to Colm’s home at 2:00 PM like clockwork and walking over to the pub together. It didn’t matter to Pádraic what they did during their time together, so long as he was with his friend. He was perfectly happy talking to Colm about what he found in his horse’s dung, a conversation that appears to have been Colm’s breaking point.
The conflict that grows between Pádraic and Colm is a result of how differently the two define friendship. For Padriac, friendship exists with no defined purpose or goal. It is a way to pass the time in the presence of someone you like. Whether anything of significance happens during that time is not anticipated or expected. The friendship itself is what is valuable. Because of his existential crisis, Colm has become the exact opposite. He views friendship as an activity that should be fulfilling and produces something tangible. It should be more than just coexisting with someone at the same place and time. It should be rewarding in some way, otherwise it is a waste of time.
How the two diverge on friendship is a direct reflection of how they have chosen to lead their lives. Pádraic is a nice yet simple man. He has no ambitions in life beyond tending to the animals on his farm. When he’s not doing that, he spends time with his sister and his friend Colm. He values his relationship with Colm because it gives meaning to his otherwise purposeless life. He is content to drift through life enjoying its simple pleasures: the beautiful Irish countryside, the unconditional love of his animals, his familial bond with his sister and his friendship with Colm.
Colm was once like Pádraic. However, possibly as a reaction to his ongoing despair, he decided to stop living an aimless existence like his friend. Instead, Colm will live a purpose-driven life, one devoted to creating and playing music and people who share his interests. Instead of wasting his time, he will focus on being creative. In light of his newfound perspective on life, it’s no wonder that he would view his relationship with Pádraic as pointless and sever it immediately.
From Colm’s perspective, his choice is completely logical and rational. Pádraic, however, is a “limited man”. He doesn’t understand Colm’s sudden change in behavior at all. He lacks the depth and self-awareness to understand why Colm is doing what he’s doing. Of course, if Pádraic had either of those things, Colm probably would keep him as a friend. Or maybe the two would be able to come to some sort of agreement that makes sense. Unfortunately, Pádraic lacks the capacity to understand Colm’s motives and becomes increasingly unhinged as a result.
In the wake of Colm’s actions, Pádraic acts like a jilted lover over the breakup of a romantic relationship. The quick death of his friendship is such a mortal blow to Pádraic that he goes through the Kubler-Ross stages of death and dying. He denies what is happening, gets angry and depressed, and then feels betrayed when Jenny chokes to death on Colm’s fingers. Whether he ever gets to acceptance is an open question. Setting fire to Colm’s house didn’t bring an immediate cathartic release for Pádraic, but the movie ends with the suggestion that time may eventually heal all wounds, as the saying goes.
While Colm’s actions make sense, his expectation that Pádraic would act rationally in light of them is ridiculous. Colm should have realized that Pádraic would become emotional over the ending of their friendship and chose something besides an all-or-nothing approach. Letting the friendship gradually die out over time would have not been ideal for Colm, but it would have made for a much easier transition for Pádraic. However, Colm believes that he must end things immediately in order to get the best use out of his remaining twelve years. Put into modern terms, Colm is ghosting Pádraic even though the two will regularly run into each other day after day. It’s the equivalent of ignoring someone who lives in the same house as you.
Additionally, the method Colm chooses to prove the seriousness of his intentions (cutting off his fingers) makes him look like a ridiculous and irrational person. HIs actions make no sense to Pádraic or anyone else because Colm will obviously not be able to play his fiddle without fingers. It’s an element of Van Gogh inspired grandiosity that just makes Colm look crazy to Pádraic and everyone else in the community.
Are Colm’s demands to Pádraic reasonable, though? Should he expect Pádraic to immediately forget all about their friendship and simply move on? They both live on the same small island, and will see each other every day for the foreseeable future. It’s not like they can avoid each other. In today’s world, this situation would be the equivalent of being ghosted by someone you dated at work but seeing the other person every day afterwards.
At a macro level, Colm and Pádraic’s situation is symbolic of how they and their neighbors have adapted to life in their small, tight-knit community. There are two distinct camps: those who have settled for the life they have and the strivers. Initially, everyone was content with the simple life they had on their incredibly beautiful island. Then, seemingly in tandem with the fighting nearby, people decided they wanted to change their lives for the better. Colm decided to shun the perpetually coasting Pádraic to focus on his art and meaningful relationships. Siobhán grows weary of her brother’s antics and the mean-spirited nature of her community and jumps at the chance for a career on the mainland. Dominic tries to free himself from his father’s suffocating grip first by befriending Pádraic and then Siobhán.
All of this change leaves Pádraic completely befuddled. He’s happy with his life as it is and doesn’t understand why others don’t feel the same way. The problem is that not everyone can willingly live their life in stasis. People like Colm, Siobhán and Dominic need to see growth in their lives. Without it, they become resigned and depressed, or like other people in the community, mean-spirited. Conversely, Pádraic becomes distraught when Colm and Siobhán choose to better themselves at his expense. They choose their happiness over his, and leave him with no choice but to become another mean and embittered person in town.
I mentioned above how masterful the dialog is in this movie. The lyrical nature of it is a joy to listen to and gives the proceedings an air of a parable or a fable. As a writer, McDonagh knows that there are no throwaway lines. Everything said in the movie is purposeful, and often hilarious. Following is an example, an exchange between Pádraic and barkeep Jonjo after Colm ignores Pádraic’s entreaties.
Jonjo: Is Colm not with you? Pádraic: No. Jonjo: Colm’s always with you. Pádraic: I know. Jonjo: Did you not knock for him? Pádraic: I did knock for him. Jonjo: Well, where is he? Pádraic: Just sittin’ there. Jonjo: Sittin’ there doin’ what? Pádraic: Sittin’ there doing nothing. Smoking. Jonjo: Have ye been rowin’? Pádraic: I don’t think we’ve been rowin’? Jonjo: Sounds like ye’ve been rowin’. Pádraic: It does sound like we’ve been rowin’. Will I try him again? Jonjo: That’d be the best thing.
All of the dialog in the movie has a poetic quality to it, where lines and phrases are repeated and echoed for comedic as well as dramatic effect. Like the parables, fables and plays that have endured for centuries, McDonagh is reaching for the same timeless quality as Aesop, Shakespeare or Aeschylus. Banshees may be about two squabbling adult men on an island off the coast of Ireland in 1923, but the story itself could take place anywhere and at any time.
McDonagh tells the story of two men who were once best of friends, but quickly become enemies because they disagree on the silliest of things: what it means to be a friend. Colm dismisses Pádraic’s feelings, and Pádraic in turn disregards Colm’s need for artistic expression. Fraternal love curdles into hate, and Pádraic and Colm are reduced to being foolish, petty, self-destructive idiots. All the while, donkeys, ponies, cows and dogs stand by and laugh their silent laughs at their so-called masters. Banshees is a tragicomic story for the ages and it’s simply feckin’ brilliant.