‘Banshees Of Inisherin’ And The Absurd Pain Of Breaking Up With Your Best Friend

'Banshees of Inisherin' takes the unique pain of a friendship break-up and puts it centre stage.

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If you’ve ever broken up with a friend, or been broken up with by a friend then Martin Mcdonagh’s Banshees of Inisherin is going to hit you where it hurts.

— Content warning: This article briefly references an act of self-harm. — 

Legally Blonde, High Fidelity, Marriage Story, Gone Girl, Kill Bill – the break-up film is a cinematic staple. Like break-ups themselves, the break-up film transcends genre, setting, and time — affecting everyone from superheroes to serial killers to socialites.

But the break-up film almost always invokes romantic attachments, despite the many relationships in our lives that can and do fall apart. The breakdown of the connection between friends is usually relegated to subplot, despite expert consensus that it can be just as traumatic as a romantic one.

Maybe you and your friend just eventually stopped talking; maybe you had to cut a friend from your life; maybe one of you moved away; or maybe your friend didn’t want to see you anymore; but whatever happened, breaking up with a close friend will leave you in a unique world of pain.

It’s on this common anguish that Martin Mcdonough sets Banshees of Inisherin. It’s 1923 and Colin Farrell is Pádraic, a dairy farmer whose life turns upside down when his best friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) refuses to meet him for their long-standing 2pm beer.

The pair are asked by everyone, from the local barman to the confessional priest, “are you two rowin’?”. The absence of their friendship is obvious and odd to everyone on the island, altering their everyday so much so that the civil war on Ireland’s mainland becomes background noise, a diegetic foreshadowing of what’s to come. Like civil war, there’s no sense or poetry to be found, only an absurd and painful absence.

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in Banshees Of Inisherin

We’re never treated to a flashback of how close these men once were to each other, making the absence of friendship part of the very structure of the film. But their lost closeness haunts Pádraic’s habitual visiting of Colm’s home, Colm’s lingering compassion for Pádraic when he’s injured, and the townsfolk’s bewilderment at the break-up.

Eventually, after much prodding, Colm relents that he’s not talking to Padraic because he doesn’t like him anymore. According to Colm, Pádraic is “dull” and he doesn’t want to spend his final years doing “aimless chatting” about nothing, wishing instead to prioritise his violin composing so his life is remembered after his death.

Pádraic disputes this, claiming people remember nice people most. “Everyone to a man knows Mozart’s name,” Colm argues. “Well, I don’t!” Pádraic yells back. In a manner that typifies McDonough’s work from In Bruges to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, the absurd lines are anchored in a sincere darkness; in this case, the inability to grapple with one’s own mortality at the expense of everything they hold dear.

Mental health is hard enough to tackle in 2023, let alone on an island off the coast of Ireland in 1923. Everyone on Inisherin speaks in hushed tones at the possibility of Colm being depressed. “Why can’t he just push it down like the rest of us?” Pádraic mutters.

But Colm’s depression quickly moves from speculation to the bleeding obvious when he makes good on his threat to cut off a finger for every time Pádraic tries to talk to him. Despite Colm’s desire to prioritise composing, the fingers Pádraic finds outside his home are from Colm’s “fiddling hand.” The self-harm, an act of tragic irony, marks a point of no return for the fallen friends. The turn from dark comedy to tragedy is swift as the men unravel along with their friendship.

Yet Colm isn’t villified for cutting off his bestie or his fingers; on the contrary; McDonagh painfully paints a portrait of a man grappling with a deep distress he cannot name or help. As much as I connected with Pádraic’s fruitless efforts to reconnect, Colm’s determined dejection is not unrecognisable. After all, who can say they haven’t harmed a friend at their lowest point? Who can say they never burned a bridge to keep their hands warm?

Colm’s determined dejection is not unrecognisable. After all, who can say they haven’t harmed a friend at their lowest point? Who can say they never burned a bridge to keep their hands warm?

From arson to severed appendages delivered in the dead of night, the film’s surface is absurd, but it feels all too familiar to anyone who has lost a friendship to mental illness. Like the scene where Colm helps Pádraic home after Pádraic is beaten up by the local cop, or when Pádraic saves Colm’s dog from a fire – we see brief flashes of the friendship that was, but the weight of depression becomes too great. Mcdonagh’s final shot sees the two men standing side by side, but the gulf between them is immeasurable.

I silently sobbed through the majority of Banshees of Inisherin. Having lost friends to their struggles with mental illness, one quite recently, I wasn’t prepared to see the rawness of sudden estrangement represented so earnestly when I walked into the cinema on New Year’s Day. Like Pádraic, I pestered, begged, and fought with my friends to try and stay in their lives to no avail and watched them struggle as they carried heavy hearts full of love with nowhere to go.

In his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, both Farrell and McDonagh expressed amazement at how much Banshees has resonated with audiences. But the past few years have been full of friend-dividing triggers – divisive election cycles, wars across the world, the rise in anti-vaxxers, backlash to civil rights movements, and a pandemic. We’re worlds away from 20th century rural Ireland, but the maddening abyss between its two ex-best friends is timeless; and Banshees shines bright for what it drags into the light.

Merryana Salem is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster. Follow them on Twitter