Should We Be Nice?: The Banshees of Inisherin

I’d sooner chew my leg off
Than be trapped in this
How easy you think of all of this as bittersweet me

“Bittersweet Me,” R.E.M.

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

“The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus

I fell in love with In Bruges for many of the same reasons I have watched repeatedly the early films of Guy Ritchie; they all create a wonderful and disturbing tension between humor and violence wrapped in a glorious adventure of how we navigate the world through regional dialects.

In many ways, these films document that how we talk about this world and the human condition—the words we use, the ways we pronounce and utter meaning aloud—not only describes that world and being human but also shapes them as well.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, In Bruges is hauntingly beautiful to look at and glorious to hear because the film is meticulously written, filmed, and acted—notably including the leads Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as well as the genius of Ralph Fiennes.

I love language and I love dialect (we Southerners owe a great deal to Irish roots across much of Appalachia) so this film has always been in my top two or three favorites; it is hard to identify a film more compelling, hilarious, and violently disturbing than In Bruges.

Of course, the arrival of The Banshees of Inisherin immediately drew my attention since the film is another collaboration among McDonagh, Farrell, and Gleeson.

The main characters are Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell) and Colm Doherty (Gleeson), and the central plot is directly stated in the promotional material; Colm abruptly ends his friendship with Pádraic with shocking consequences that constitute most of the film.

I am not compelled to review the film, but I do highly recommend it. I also think I can navigate this without spoilers so the discussion is mostly spoiler free (at least of key details) except to acknowledge that the film has many of the same features as In Bruges that make for a roller coaster viewing filled with laughing aloud, cringing, and even considering not being able to finish the viewing.

Again, if you love scenic films and dialect, this film is a lovely but unnerving two-hour trip.

One of the motifs of the film is confronting what it means to be nice. In the context of the film, “nice” is presented as at least two things—kind as well as being a bit dim witted.

Pádraic embodies both being nice and the tyranny of niceness; in fact, he and his sister are often characterized as mostly nice people, although their existence on an isolated Irish island in the 1920s during civil war provides a really complex historical and setting challenge to humans simply trying to live and even survive.

McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is set a century ago and echoes Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus if it were refashioned by Franz Kafka’s sense of absurdity and dark humor (something many people miss in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis).

The film explores isolation, loneliness, violence and abuse, and a seemingly endless and somewhat matter-of-fact fatalistic view of war.

Viewers, like Colm, should and likely do struggle with Pádraic, the nice guy.

Pádraic seems sincere, but his niceness is not a call to being nice (kind) but an interrogation of what nice actually is.

A Google search of The Banshees of Inisherin reveals something interesting about the film:

Viewers of this film want meaning, but I believe reducing art to simplistic messaging misses that most art is about raising questions, not offering simplistic themes on life and the human condition.

And the meaning of life is often as much laughing at as struggling against or coming to understand (something Colm is battling somewhat horribly).

In fact, in odd and mostly unpredictable ways, many characters and moments in the film dramatize acts of being nice (kindness)—even by characters who are otherwise not so nice—against the paradox of Pádraic’s development as a character after Colm ends the friendship.

[One of the best scenes involves Pádraic being confronted about his being nice by Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan), a character who in many ways adds texture to the motif of nice against Pádraic’s centered character.]

Being nice, it seems, is being interrogated in this film that is populated with non-romantic relationships—friends, siblings, parent/child, community members.

In that context, is there meaning in The Banshees of Inisherin?

I think so, of course, but I am more compelled by the questions it raises:

  • What does it mean to be “nice”?
  • What does any person owe another person in terms of their lives and their relationships?
  • Where is the line between nice/kindness and selfishness?
  • How are we shaped by our environment?
  • How do we come to know and recognize the impact of mental health on our ability to navigate the world? [While the film directly considers Colm’s mental health, we cannot ignore Pádraic.]

In the classic sense of the word, this film dramatizes the lives of pathetic people. But our hearts and our minds are often set against each other as the narrative develops in macabre ways that likely could make Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King anxious.

My heart ached much of the film. Colm admits, “I do worry sometimes I might just be entertaining myself while staving off the inevitable.”

And he also prompts us to consider: “Niceness doesn’t last.”

There we may find a meaning, but I am not sure what we are supposed to do with that.