In Martin McDonagh’s latest film, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a pair of friends on a tiny island off the coast of Ireland. It’s 1923, and they can hear artillery fire as the Irish Civil War rages on the mainland. But for them, there is only the steady rhythm of caring for animals, idle chit-chat, Mass on Sunday, and drinks at the pub.
Then, everything changes. Or, rather, one thing changes, and that changes everything. Quiet, contemplative Colm (Gleeson) tells simple, talkative Pádraic (Farrell), without warning, that he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. The collapse of their friendship, which occupies the rest of the film, serves as a microcosm of the carnage that political and cultural polarization inflicts not just on our society but on our very souls.
When Pádraic demands an explanation for the sudden change of heart, Colm offers one: He’s tired of listening to Pádraic blather on about the minutiae of island life. Colm would rather compose songs on his fiddle. He fears dying without having fully realized his talents. Yes, ending his friendship with Pádraic isn’t very nice. But great artists live on forever. Nobody remembers nice people.
Colm’s philosophy is pure, expressive individualism. It’s the “modern self” whose rise and triumph Carl Trueman so skillfully traced. Such people see their lives as blank canvases rather than as thin threads connecting their ancestors to their descendants.
That modern self, of course, has nothing to do with one’s family or neighbors or unchosen obligations. It’s what’s left when those things are stripped away. Colm has to withdraw to pursue his art because, for him, community and creativity are opposing forces.
The traditionalist’s response to the expressive individualist is predictable: “No. Stop. Don’t reject the ties that bind us. Pursue self-actualization if you wish; only let us remain friends while you do so.”
To the transgressive, these terms are unacceptable. Any restraint on total self-creation is violence, even if that violence is, in practice, self-inflicted. When Pádraic refuses to accept that their friendship is over, Colm promises to cut off one of his fingers each time Pádraic pesters him. Of course, the more fingers he cuts off, the less able he is to play the fiddle. Therein lies the irony.
Colm’s spiritual descendants in the 21st century claim to be crippled by the oppressive -isms and -phobias of the “cishet” white patriarchy. They list six mental illnesses in their Twitter bios. They pursue risky sexual encounters, zonk out on SSRIs, and disfigure their bodies with facial piercings and double mastectomies. They even threaten suicide (“Would you rather have a live son or a dead daughter?”). In each case, they refuse to believe that they’re hurting themselves. They insist that the solution to their anguish is always more transgression. The more they pursue freedom, the less free they become.
Inevitably, the negative externalities of expressive individualism begin to take their toll on everyone else. Fond as transgressives are of insisting that “gay marriage doesn’t affect you,” marriage is collapsing in America. “Bodily autonomy” brings liberation at the cost of millions of unborn lives. Transgender ideology lures confused teens into permanently mutilating themselves. In “The Banshees of Inisherin,” that spillover is symbolized by Pádraic’s beloved pet donkey choking to death on one of Colm’s severed fingers.
Once those consequences hit, the blue-haired gender studies majors (or finger-lacking fiddle players) can no longer be dismissed as harmless oddities but must be regarded as existential threats. For the trads, it begins to seem like the only option is to harden their hearts and strike back. Welcome to America, 2022.
“Some things there’s no moving on from,” Pádraic says after torching Colm’s house in retribution. “And I think that’s a good thing.” This final line elevates the drama from the political to the cosmic. It’s the felix culpa, mimetic desire, whatever you want to call it.
Mankind strives upward, and in our striving, we fall, and in our fallenness, we wound one another. Like Dante’s Satan, imprisoned in his frozen kingdom by the icy gusts of his own attempts at flight, we gnaw each other’s flesh — bitterly and without ceasing.
And yet, Colm’s yearning for something more is indispensable to our humanity. Our destiny really is to become like God. Striving is good until it becomes Promethean, just as contentment is good until it degenerates into oppressive worldliness. We need both. We’re stuck with each other.
When the Dobbs decision came down, I stood in front of the Supreme Court and had frequent bizarre and emotionally charged interactions with pro-abortion advocates. Similarly, Pádraic could have jeered at Colm as he sheared off one finger after another. Fair enough, and that pain might be absurd and illogical, but it is still real, and it’s still human. To surrender to empathy is to accept a rigged game, but to banish it entirely may be a far greater risk.
Even as Pádraic swears eternal enmity, Colm thanks his erstwhile friend for watching his dog after burning down his house. “Any time,” Pádraic responds. Thank God. If we manage to extinguish all love for our neighbors, we’re truly damned. As the credits roll on McDonagh’s film, grace still has some room to maneuver.
McDonagh is a Flannery O’Connor type of Catholic, for whom that grace shows up only in the most extreme circumstance. For him, the purpose of the conflict between the Pádraics and the Colms of the world is not the victory of one side or the other. It’s the revelation, however fleeting, of the One who reconciles their warring impulses. The One Who is both Judge and Outlaw, Monarch and Revolutionary, Center and Margin, Alpha and Omega.