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Irish Tragic-Comedy ‘The Banshees Of Inisherin’ Echoes The Existential Angst Of U.S. Politics

Although set in Ireland, the Oscar nominee’s reflection of the same political strife we see in America is not likely to be accidental.


“Some things there’s no moving on from. And I think that’s a good thing.”

So goes the final line of Colin Farrell’s Pádraic Súilleabháin in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” the cinematic masterpiece by writer-director Martin McDonagh that recently earned an Oscars nomination for best picture.

The celebrated Irish playwright — who previously was nominated for Academy Awards for his films “In Bruges” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — here finds himself in familiar territory with the setting, style, and subject matter centered around his native land and his original creative medium: a classical tragedy that is, alternately, side-splittingly funny and deeply reflective at times.

The film explores the broader nature of conflict and war, with its action directly paralleling the Irish Civil War that took place from 1922-1923 following the country’s independence from the United Kingdom. Sadly, its freedom from the crown gave way to an extensive, bloody conflict that would linger for decades to come as the two opposing sides, once allies, clashed over the terms of armistice.

The location itself, the island of Inisherin (“Irish island”), is based on and was filmed in the actual Aran Islands off the country’s west coast, but McDonagh clearly establishes the bucolic backdrop as a microcosm for the entire country at large — with a quarrel between two local residents mimicking the brutal on-again, off-again fighting on the mainland.

Moreover, that particular moment in Irish history may itself be an allegory for examining the universal questions being posed and how they apply to the modern era. And nowhere is it more relevant than in the current United States, which feels like it is at the cusp of the next great civil war as we approach yet another pivotal Election Day where the two sides appear to agree on only one thing: that the soul of the country is at stake.

To McDonagh, it seems, the essence of human conflict may be rooted in a sort of existential angst caused by the sheer boredom of living with the status quo.

Editor’s note: film spoilers ahead.

The two main characters — portrayed by Farrell and his former “In Bruges” co-star Brendan Gleeson (aka Alastor “MadEye” Moody from the “Harry Potter” series) — find themselves suddenly at odds over their life’s ambition, with Gleeson’s discontented character cutting abruptly short his mate’s hours-long soliloquies at the local pub about what a pet donkey had recently digested.

The fight between Farrell’s Pádraic and Gleeson’s character, Colm, begins with a seemingly trivial act: the termination of a mismatched friendship wrought more from a shared set of circumstances than common personality traits, but ultimately spirals out of control.

The film has been described as a tragedy, and it fits the mold perfectly in the classic Greek tradition of koros (happiness), hubris (arrogance), ate (downfall), and nemesis (divine retribution or suffering).

As with many great tragedies, there are lighter moments, points at which all hope is not lost, before the escalating tension leads to a drastic gesture that sets the unhappy outcome in motion. In this case, the third act finally makes interesting the once-mundane matter of what the donkey had to eat, but at a tremendous cost for all involved.

Caught up in the crossfire are the island’s other residents, including Dominic, the village simpleton (portrayed by rising star and inevitable future Oscar-winner Barry Keoghan), who seems to have a mollifying effect on Farrell’s character by offering hope that he is not the most desperate and irredeemable case on the island.

McDonagh’s thoroughly crafted portraits examine not only the characters’ inner motivations but also their sins — a sampling of which includes pride, despair, assaulting a police officer, and self-mutilation. That list offers just a hint of the dark humor within this tragic framework, which hits its comedic crescendo with a scene literally inside a Catholic confession booth.

In essence, the main characters’ relationship mirrors the breakdown between a provincialist worldview (embodied by Farrell’s “dull” character) and a more global one (embodied by Gleeson’s artistically aspirational character, who wishes to spend his waning days focused on his fiddling instead of idle chatter).

That dichotomy may ring familiar in modern-day America, where the county’s duty to accommodate other global demands and interests has been hotly debated, from the Biden administration’s open borders policy, to the costly war between Russia and Ukraine, to the growing threat of Chinese imperialism.

McDonagh is no stranger to America, having set two of his four feature films across the pond in the U.S., and so the echoes of its politics are not likely to be accidental.

The current standoff between Republicans and Democrats may have begun with the Cold War-era McCarthyism, the 1960 election between Kennedy and Nixon, or maybe much later, during the Watergate scandal, the Bill Clinton impeachment, or the 2000 Bush versus Gore election.

Each involves a set of partisan grievances being answered in kind with an equal and opposite reaction. Likewise, even though the film begins in medias res with the severance of their companionship, one can imagine the past relationship between the two main characters following a similar back-and-forth trajectory, with even Farrell’s Pádraic uncertain as to whether they might be “rowing” at the start.

The turning point for America’s strange political bedfellows likely began with the Obama presidency. Although the hope of political unity remained in sight after the divisiveness of the Bush years, the narcissist-in-chief who succeeded him summarily dismissed that prospect, opting instead to stay true to his Saul Alinsky-inspired roots by trying to undermine and dismantle the status quo rather than to preserve and protect it.

The 2016 election of Donald Trump and the rigged 2020 election both represent the aftershocks of that, with the latter being a sort of pyrrhic victory for Democrats, whose defeat of Trump came at the cost of their own credibility and effectively destroyed the institution of American democracy in order to, in their warped thinking, preserve it.

The climactic turning point for “Inisherin” similarly involves an act that inflicts as much harm to its perpetrator as it does the intended victim, and it turns Colm’s original reason for cutting off his friendship with Pádraic — to focus on making music — into a moot point.

With neither having much left to live for as a result, the film leaves viewers with the impression that the devastation depicted in it was just the prelude to a much longer span of suffering to come, and that the acrimony between the two has now filled the void of dullness on the island by giving both a new, fatalistic sense of purpose.

Has America reached its own point from which there is “no moving on”?

It may well hinge on whether Democrats, facing a new, Republican-led House of Representatives and the ensuing checks on their hereto unfettered authority, begin to recognize the problems with pursuing a Marxist, globalist agenda that empowers the state over the individual rights of its citizens.

Already, some fear it may be too late for democracy to rebound, with doomsayers warning that the stage is set for more massive fraud that will leave neither side satisfied with the outcome and create further distrust of the system.

However, as long as there remains a belief in the possibility of redemption, the tragic fate is not yet sealed, and the banshees — harbingers of death in traditional Irish folklore — may have to wait a bit longer.

This article was originally published at Headline USA.

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