Is It Too Late for Male Friendship?
"The Banshees of Inisherin" is a reminder of the costs inherent in adopting violence as a primary language
There’s a crisis on the fictional island of Inisherin; a civil war has broken out between two men, but its implications reach far beyond them. Every day around 2 PM, Pádraic calls after his friend Colm to have a drink at the pub. Only one day, Colm doesn’t want to have a drink with Pádraic. In fact, he doesn’t ever want to drink with Pádraic again. So begins Martin McDonaugh’s 2022 film The Banshees of Inisherin, a rare depiction of a breakup between male friends that has a lot to say about how men communicate, for better or—more often—worse.
Colm (a grumpy Brendan Gleeson) is someone whose sadness is well known throughout the island. Even the priest regularly checks in with him to ask, “How’s the despair?” Although he’s not dying, he’s plagued by the idea that life is slipping away from him and feels a pressing urge to spend his remaining days making great art in the face of his nonexistence. He’s working on a song called “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which he hopes will outlive him in the way of Mozart’s music. He sees no place for Pádraic in his project, telling Siobhan, Pádraic’s sister, “I just don’t have a place for dullness in me life anymore.” At first, Colm thinks that ditching Pádraic will reduce his despair, but after a fleeting reprieve, inevitably, it returns.
The first time I saw The Banshees of Inisherin, alone in a theater, I understood, even if I didn’t agree with, the reasoning behind Colm’s decision to end his friendship with Pádraic. I have felt Colm’s fear of time slipping, as I suspect all of us who are alive do at one point or another. As someone with depression and anxiety who regularly feels Colm’s particular kind of despair, I know how crushing the idea of mortality can become—how one can mistake urgency for purpose and grasp at fleeting or ill-conceived fixes.
Colm places the blame on his friend—a material reality—rather than on some abstract and looming force of malaise that would be harder to face. Colm mistakes his friend’s dullness for the general mundanity of life, not recognizing it for what it is: something we are all forced to endure, whether alone or together. Cutting off a healthy (if boring) friendship doesn’t buy more time, nor does it buy Colm the peace he desires. Worse, it unravels Pádraic, played by a furrow-browed Colin Farrell, who brings a sadness to the role that conveys the emotional complexity of men otherwise stunted by limited understandings of intimacy.
It’s no secret that men have a hard time being friends, and it may only be getting harder. In a 2021 report conducted by the Survey Center on American Life, 20% of single men reported having no close friends, and only 25% of men reported having at least six close friends, down from over 50% in 1990. According to the survey, men are less likely than women to receive emotional support from friends, less likely to tell their friends they love them, and less likely to share feelings or problems. Those numbers rise when men have female friends, but still, the state of male friendships seems dire. Given the gendered proliferation of mass shootings, alongside growing and higher rates of suicide by men, the statistics point to the overwhelmingly tragic reality of toxic masculinity and a need for new models. Although The Banshees of Inisherin doesn’t end happily, it may nonetheless point to better ways for men to relate to one another, if only we can heed its warnings.
When Pádraic learns that Colm finds him dull, he goes into a spiral that is telling of how the island views men. Using Dominic—a young man with an abusive father and inability to socialize that renders him obnoxious to the other characters—as a reference point, Pádraic begs Siobhan to agree that Pádraic is not the dullest islander. Although she concedes this point, Siobhan quickly loses interest in the ranking system, saying it’s no way to think of people.
Siobhan (Kerry Condon as one of the few female characters, and, interestingly, the only self-assured person on the island) has heard enough of how the men on Inisherin conceive of others. Elsewhere, arguing with Colm, she points out that all the men on the island—not just Pádraic—are boring. As Colm demands silence from Pádraic, Siobhan scoffs at the idea of “one more silent man on Inisherin.” Dull men choosing silence over communication—it’s a dismal response to an abysmal metric of personhood, but it’s the system they’ve agreed to accommodate.
Pádraic has another, better system, but over the course of the film, he slowly loses sight of his confidence in its value. He confronts Colm one night at the pub, pointing out that Colm used to be nice, then worrying aloud that maybe he never was. “I suppose niceness doesn’t last then,” Colm notes, pointing out that art—music, paintings, and poetry—does. “Absolutely no one,” Colm argues, is remembered for being nice, which prompts Pádraic to sweetly recall the niceness of his mother, father, and Siobhan.
“Forever I’ll remember her,” Pádraic says of Siobhan, not realizing that she is standing behind him, and that she will eventually leave for a job on the Irish mainland. Here, Colm seems to stand alone in thinking that kindness matters, but he’s not wrong. Men are so often socialized to be cruel, and it can be difficult to recognize that swimming against that tide is a worthwhile pursuit.
But even as he champions it, Pádraic’s expression conveys a worried feeling that niceness doesn’t just not last—it might not matter at all. In the scene, Colm is reluctantly sitting next to Dominic’s dad, the police officer who nightly abuses his son. Pádraic can’t square his years of friendship with Colm and the distance between them now. Was all of that kindness and kinship between them real? In this scene, my early sympathy for Colm quickly turned to empathy for Pádraic. After all, I have been that friend, watching a friendship that mattered so much to me suddenly end, seemingly without my input. When we face rejection, a natural response can be to shut down, close ourselves off, and never risk vulnerability again. But that fear, that all relationships will rot just the same, forecloses other relationships that might bloom. It takes a lifetime of practice to remain open, and men are so rarely taught how.
Colm might be right that no one will be remembered for their niceness. But if so, it raises another question: does what outlasts us matter, either? After we’re dead and buried in the ground, with no way of knowing what might have lived on? While alive, Pádraic is right that we remember how people treat us; far more valuable than any notion of creative genius is the notion that people be good to one another. Hoping that we’ll make something lasting is no way to measure a life, since we can no more control what little bit of us might be remembered than we can control our death. How many great artists are lost forever to the crush of time? What we can do now, though, is consider what it means to care for the people we’re stuck with on our little islands of existence, in the short amount of time we have. This, in essence, is Pádraic’s better system of measurement. And though he loses his grip on this truth over the course of the film, watching it, I wanted to reach out and hug him, tell him he wasn’t wrong to choose to live tenderly.
As the film continues, and as his plan fails to bring about the desired result, Colm begins to threaten violence against himself, telling Pádraic he’ll cut off one of his own fingers each time Pádraic bothers him. It’s a baffling ultimatum, using self-harm to send a message, but it’s also an accurate encapsulation of the reality that men so often default to violence—whether against ourselves or others—when words fail us. The film is set during the Irish Civil War, and though the island of Inisherin isn’t part of it, the background of war noise is a reminder that the primary language men speak is violence, so much so that it’s hard to conceive of other ways of talking. Indeed, although losing his fingers would severely limit his ability to play music, Colm is so willing to insist on the point of his isolation that he will sacrifice the only thing that supposedly brings him any joy in this world. He escalates the threat from one finger to four, and the escalation only confuses Pádraic, who misses his friend and would never have wished harm on anyone.
As a result of his crumbling relationship with Colm, Pádraic begins to reject his cherished notion of kindness, hoping to become someone Colm will want to spend time with again. When the men at the pub try to reassure him, telling him that he’s “one of life’s good guys,” it doesn’t ease Pádraic’s mind at all. “I used to think that’d be a nice thing to be,” he complains. “One of life’s good guys. And now, it sounds like the worst thing I ever heard.” So, Pádraic tries to turn mean: when a man arrives in town to make music with Colm, Pádraic tells him that his dad has been hit by a bread truck and might die if he doesn’t return home. He feels proud of himself for this act of revenge—but losing sight of his kindness costs him and the island something greater.
At the moment Pádraic decides to be mean, he loses Dominic—another friend, who thought Pádraic was nice, different than the other men. “I am the nicest of them!” Pádraic protests, but it’s too late. Dominic (Barry Keoghan in a standout role of male sensitivity) becomes unable to see kindness in Pádraic, and the two aren’t seen on screen together again. In fact, we don’t see Dominic again until he is floating face down in the waters off Inisherin, an apparent suicide after Siobhan has rejected his romantic advancements. On an island of only a few hundred people, or anywhere for that matter, the premature death of a young man should be deeply felt. But in the world of the film, it’s unclear if any of the characters will notice or care—they weren’t compassionate to Dominic in life, either.
It isn’t clear from the script if Colm’s despair reaches toward suicide, but I know mine does. I’ve been depressed to the point of ideation, and when I was younger, I made loose plans in response to my own vision of a dead-end life. I had a male friend who died by suicide, friends and family who have known men and boys who died by suicide, male friends who have also struggled with ideation or attempts. I’m not surprised by the statistics on male suicides, and though I acknowledge the causes cannot be flattened, I know that the struggle to connect, be vulnerable, and express a range of feelings—from joy to despair—plays a significant role. Watching The Banshees of Inisherin, I see myself in a kaleidoscope of hurting men: Colm, Pádraic, Dominic. I want all of them to hurt less, to live in a culture that raises them to feel, to relate, to better value their lives and the lives of others. In one scene, Pádraic is knocked unconscious by the police officer, and Colm picks him up, puts him back on his wagon, and takes him halfway home. He stops when Pádraic begins to cry, and, though he hesitates, gets off the wagon and goes his separate way—but I wanted him to stay. I wanted Colm to hold Pádraic, or at least to sit still with him, to hear his pain and realize that dullness is just part of life, not a mark against people. I wanted to tell him that enduring it alongside other people makes it easier. It’s kept me alive.
In Irish folklore, a banshee is a female spirit who brings warning of a death. Early in the film, Pádraic tells Colm that there aren’t any banshees on Inisherin, which perhaps allows Pádraic not to heed the warnings delivered by Mrs. McCormick, another islander, who warns him that death is coming. Perhaps it allows him to embrace the mean—might we say male?—spirit that ultimately takes hold of him, that leads him to set fire to Colm’s house at 2 PM, the time he used to call after him, insisting he doesn’t care one way or the other if Colm is inside. The violence engulfs the men of the island, and there seems to be no hope for their civil war to end.
But as they stand on the coast in the wake of their embittered battle, looking out past Inisherin, I found myself hoping they’d start to see their situation differently. The greatest contribution men can make, the greatest legacy we can pursue, is to resist the wave of violence perpetuated by one another, to turn the tide away from the statistics and toward a future in which we value—even celebrate—vulnerability and companionship. It’s not too late to heed the banshee and embrace a softer, kinder vision for ourselves. For everyone’s sake, I have to believe that men can learn to be friends again.