Out of the Celluloid Closet

The Banshees of Inisherin and the Queerness of Platonic Breakups

· Updated on October 4, 2023

It takes a little while for the language of the breakup between Pádraic and Colm to become clear. The two men at the center of The Banshees of Inisherin, a pitch-black tragicomedy by Martin McDonagh, slowly begin to separate from one another when Colm—a fiddle player suffering through a “despair” (Brendan Gleason) —declares to Pádraic (Colin Farrell), all eyebrows and uncertainty as he grasps for something he can’t articulate – “I just don’t like you no more.”

Pádraic insists “but you liked me yesterday,” and while it might be tempting to think of Banshees as being about something contemporary like ghosting, the thing that makes the film work so well—as both dark comedy and bleak tragedy—is that it dives so deeply into a time and place (1923, the midst of the Irish Civil War, raging just beyond the fictional isle of Inisherin) where being able to find the words for these feelings seems impossible. 

So there’s no surprise when, not only is Pádraic baffled by the sudden stony silence from his former best friend, but the rest of the sparsely populated isle also tries to make sense of it. The bartender at the pub the two men frequent—and which seems to be the nexus of all social life on the island—asks Pádraic if they’ve been rowing; a question that he’s unable to answer: “We haven’t been rowing. I don’t think we’ve been rowing. Have we been rowing?”

The lack of an easy language for the end of this relationship ties into something else; the difficulty of defining platonic breakups—defining them either too similar to a romance, or without a frame of reference that can capture the intimacy of friendship. The platonic breakup is slightly queer in itself: strange, existing in a place that’s just out of the bounds of what’s easily understood. Gerry, one of the inhabitants of Inisherin, says that he thought that Colm and Pádraic made “a funny pair,” and it’s easy to think of them as being a “queer pair” in the same way: just a little odd. After all, nobody really knows how to deal with watching the friendship between the two men deteriorate until Colm offers up a dismemberment-tinged ultimatum to Pádraic, at which point everyone else on Inisherin tells the bushy-browed local to steer clear of his former friend. 

Colm tries to frame his breakup with Pádraic as a kind of seize-the-day decision that will let him make the most of his time: he hates the idea of spending time with a man he’s grown to consider to be a dullard and a drain, when he could instead be continuing to play the fiddle: to write something that will outlast him when his time comes. It wouldn’t be wrong to consider Colm to be more of an intellectual person than Pádraic (who gets described by islanders as “a limited man”), but his less worldly companion still—in spite of everything—attempts to see the good in the world, or at least what little of it there might be left. Colm, on the other hand, is defined by despair – a term used in his confessionals to describe what we’d call depression; another example of Banshees taking place in a world where language and feelings aren’t able to align – with the priest even asking, “it’s not [Pádraic] you have impure thoughts about, is it?” Queerness lingers around their strange friendship, as a way for people to try and make sense of it. 

What’s striking about this dynamic—somewhere between a violently protracted breakup, and the endless back-and-forth of staying and going that defines so much of the drama of Samuel Beckett—is that when Pádraic breaks out of being the man Colm knows, and has grown weary of, a spark seems to be ignited between them. This raises the tension and the stakes in the breakup, but also reveals the strange ways in which the two men are drawn together; each unable to quit the other. 

The platonic breakup is slightly queer in itself: strange, existing in a place that’s just out of the bounds of what’s easily understood.

But their breakup has no words; no words for it exist on the isle of Inisherin in 1923 (they barely exist for it now), and the dark comedy and shocking violence that comes out of it seems to be a way to try and articulate these complex, contradictory feelings. Colm talks about dismembering his own hand, but the threat is more leveled at Pádraic than anything else; as if its the only way to get through to a man who doesn’t understand what’s happening or why (even though, the more time Banshees spends with Colm, the clearer it becomes that he understands just as little). Colm almost threatens his own independence from Pádraic with this ultimatum – the fiddle, his music, is what he seems to be ending the friendship in the name of (he evokes Mozart, insisting everyone knows him; a point Pádraic immediately disproves.) Early on in the film, Pádraic watches his once intimate friend playing the fiddle from across their regular haunt; there’s something wistful and sad about the space that exists between the two men as if they’re trying to communicate with one another through different languages. What’s fascinating is the shared language that they seem to fumble towards through the escalations of the film’s final act. 

The last act of Banshees is difficult to talk about without giving away too much of what makes it so effective – it’s loaded with surprises, shocks, and sadness – but that final act seems to capture the thing that makes the relationship queer in that strange, undefinable way. The fact that as one man pushes, the other pulls. It might be that on a lonely island like Inisherin, any friendship is worth holding onto for dear life; it might be that Pádraic is unable to understand Colm’s not liking him no more, and refuses to leave until this makes sense to him. In many ways, Pádraic doesn’t make sense to Colm either; he’s baffled by how routine the man’s existence seems to be, how dull it’s become. It lingers on unanswered questions, but the one that seems most profound is the question of what lasts; what it is that’s actually worth holding onto. The foolhardy optimism of Pádraic is a driving force for both him and Banshees—his fear that everything went wrong when God stopped caring about miniature donkeys—and the fact that verbal abuse and threats of physical violence seem to reignite the connection between Colm and Pádraic. When the latter storms into Colm’s house to berate him, the two then sit down and exchange a few words, but when it settles back into their routine, Colm bemoans that it was “going well” until then; as if this treatment is what he deserves, a manifestation of his despair. Both men, drawn together by ruins of their own making, are grappling with their own kinds of despair—Colm’s depression; Pádraic’s desire to see the light in an increasingly dark world—unable to make sense of what it would mean to go through these things without needing to be alone.

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