Repeating an annual tradition of mine, I am doing my best not to pay any attention to the Oscars. One thing I can’t escape is that The Banshees of Inisherin is being talked about relentlessly in relation to a number of top Academy Awards. Having finally got around to watching it, I can’t say that’s a surprise. Not because it is Martin McDonagh’s best film, but because it is his safest – and some might say dullest – effort to date.
There is undeniably plenty to enjoy about The Banshees of Inisherin, and I did enjoy it. McDonagh retains an uncanny ability to slowly build punchlines into tense or sad scenarios, to the point where you might be thinking “jeez, this is a drag,” before unexpectedly guffawing as the long, winding joke finally lands.
To that end, its jet-black humour and tragic central story serve as common threads with his three previous outings – and I am glad that Hollywood hasn’t pushed him into the living death of feel-good comedies. But I can’t escape the feeling that compared to those other films, this was McDonagh playing it safe for award season.
In Bruges took aim at one of Hollywood’s primary exports – wise-cracking criminals with handguns – and turned them into a bunch of bickering, self-absorbed oafs. Seven Psychopaths meanwhile turned the lens even more directly on America’s studio system and its habit of using quippy dialogue and star-power to disguise the derivative films it holds dearest. While it is true that Hollywood typically enjoys hearing about itself during awards season, it is less pleased hearing about itself in such unflattering terms.
McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri did quite well with the Academy in this regard, although its framing of American police as racist, incompetent alcoholics may have proved a bridge too far to have won Best Film. With The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh may have hit the inoffensive bullseye. It largely seems concerned with the shortcomings of the common man – with humour often derived from ideas like milk farmers not knowing who Mozart was, or the ‘meaningless’ things the lower classes think are worth squabbling over. I can easily imagine the haughty laughter of Academy jury members on that front, as they revel in how cultured they are, or how much more important the things they squabble over are.
At the same time, any other commentary it does offer is kept at a safe distance by its setting; rural Ireland, 100 years ago. Much of the conversation around the film and its meaning centre on the Civil War taking place in its background. As Pádraic (Colin Farrell – the former studio-system heart-throb still revelling in a weird-independent career renaissance) stands on the windswept shore of Inisherin, sounds of gunfire drift across from the mainland. At various points in the story, characters make note of the noises, and note their confusion as to what it’s all about. Meanwhile, the story involving Colm (Brendan Gleeson) – Pádraic’s former best friend, who one day decides without explanation to stop talking to him – plays out what some people interpret as a miniature version of the same conflict.
Colm decides he is going to stop talking to Pádraic because Pádraic is dull – a small-minded peasant, who has nothing of import to tell him, besides the content of his donkey’s latest bowel movements. Instead, Colm wants to move on, and make something that will outlast himself – to compose great music that people will remember centuries after he has passed on. With Ireland having freshly thrown off British rule to form a free state – minus the North – this would suggest the war on the mainland is simply a trivial squabble about what is ‘good enough’ for the new state; a portion of the population are trying to distance themselves from the humbler elements of their history, and present a more ‘refined’ cultural identity – as ruling classes across Europe had done before them.
While this is the most obvious reading of the film, it is by far the most irritating – giving every Centrist Dad in the mainstream press another chances to wag their fingers at anyone ‘irrational’ enough to fight for a political cause. It’s not even particularly fair on McDonagh to focus so heavily on that aspect of his script. The war’s presence is very much ‘take it or leave it’, while there is little attempt made to explain it – suggesting it might not have actually been the thing McDonagh was most concerned with addressing at all. For a more thorough examination of those issues, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is more worth visiting.
No, what may be the most interesting thing about The Banshees of Inisherin is its analysis of just how boring liberal capitalism’s drive for productivity makes people. The film is released into a world where several centuries of conditioning have led the majority of people to assume those with the most wealth are pre-ordained to succeed due to their efforts and smarts – and so reproducing their mentalities on a personal level will therefore lead to similar success.
As long as you have inherited wealth. And a readymade support network. And luck.
Self-help babble is a symptom of this, with hordes of soothsayers ready to demystify exactly what it is that most billionaires do to be successful – and without addressing any of the above options, their tea-readings have become increasingly unhinged. One of the most common ones circulating regularly now is that you should distance yourself from any friends or family who might ‘hold you back from greatness’. So anyone who doesn’t reinforce your entrepreneurial grind-set is a distraction, to be jettisoned, and you can only succeed once you’ve cut yourself off from them.
Colm adopts this stance in The Banshees of Inisherin – eventually revealing to Pádraic that he feels normal chat is now a waste of time, and he’d be better off focusing on creating something that’s a cultural artefact for others to consume. That is the only thing he now recognises as ‘valuable’, giving him a shot at some vague sense of immortality, while also stating that as acts of kindness are seldom remembered for a long time, they are of no value.
But as Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (the formidable Kelly Condon, who deserves most credit of all among an impeccable cast) points out, this just makes Colm a different kind of boring man. She is actually the most fully rounded individual on the island – showing the possibility that people can enjoy cultural pursuits, and knowledge, and still be kind. In contrast, Colm – who she tellingly corrects about Mozart’s actual birth in the 18th century – is someone whose vanity means he is willing to forego the kindness he might enjoy while he’s alive, in pursuit of people knowing his name when he has disappeared into the void, and cannot feel anything.
This tedious form of insanity is arguably the most subversive part of The Banshees of Inisherin; skewering a part of modern life which has become essential to the functioning of late capitalism. Because most of us know we aren’t going to become trillionaires, or even have two pennies to rub together when the lights go out. So, what is the motivation for standing for any more of this? Some form of secular life after death then becomes crucial – and that comes in the form of possibly being remembered for a product we made, that other people may continue to consume.
It just so happens that the boring men who dominate Hollywood, and its institutions and supporting press, are devoted to that same dream. If they were to confront it, it would either enrage or terrify them. Perhaps that is why we’ve heard so much about the Civil War instead.