Thursday, January 12, 2023

The Comic Cruelty of Inishiren

The Banshees of Inishiren


The Comic Cruelty of Inishiren

(Spoilers included)

By Ed Meek

Irish feuds run like fissures through my family history. My younger brother fled to northern Maine thirty years ago and didn’t even come back for the funerals of our parents. He resented the criticism my parents leveled at him for not being the person they wanted him to be, and he resented my sisters and me for remaining close to our parents. My uncle Dan did not speak to my mother and father for ten years after his wife lost her engagement ring and my mother had the gall to give her sister a replacement. So, I was redisposed to identify when the musician Colm (Brendan Gleeson) picks a fight with his friend Padraic (Colin Farrell).

“I don’t like you no more,” Colm says.

In a conventional plot, this might be the climax when a particular action turns one character against another. A guy has sex with his friend’s wife for example. But in this case, we are to assume that Colm and Padraic were fast friends for years, drinking together every afternoon at the local pub after a long day of composing music in Colm’s case and hanging out at his house with his pet miniature donkey in Padraic’s case. We’re sympathetic toward Padraic as the film opens since he seems a bit simple and childlike. “Are we rowen (fighting) then?” he asks the barkeep. “We must be rowen. I didn’t know we were rowen but we must have been rowen.”

But why would these two ever have been friends? There’s no telling but the earnestness of Padriaic contrasted with Colm’s lugubrious demeanor makes Colm’s announcement funny. Thus begins a series of cruel jokes. As in Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonough starts with an unlikely premise, a “what if” and proceeds from there to magnify the conflict. If you buy in, it can feel like a fun carnival ride.

When Padraic won’t accept Colm’s directive to stay away, Colm, a fiddler, cut off one of his fingers to spite Padraic. And when Padraic haplessly persists in being friends, Colm continues to dismember himself. The fact that musicians, like baseball pitchers, go to great lengths to protect their hands makes this incongruous. Worse still, one of the digits is swallowed by Padraic’s cute donkey, killing the poor animal.

These acts are vaguely predicted by an old crone, one of the many ridiculous characters on the island of Inishiren, an “island off an island” as Padraic’s sister says. Inishiren, although beautiful, is populated by “mental cases” as Padraic’s sister tells Padraic before she leaves for the mainland. Those mental cases include a policeman who beats both Padraic and his own developmentally delayed son. When not working, he sits home drunk and masturbates wearing nothing but his hat.

Maybe you find all this hilarious, a term whose meaning has shifted from really funny to a version of awkward humor. Isn’t it hilarious when Republican governors bus undocumented migrants thousands of miles and drop them off in blue states? Of course, cruel humor is nothing new but the preponderance of it in humor-horror and violent films might have something to do with the rise in cruelty in our culture. From the cruel attacks by Trump on Mexicans and the disabled, to the “lock her up” chants, to the personal attacks on Nancy Pelosi, to the sucker punching of women by young males. Not to mention our perverse system of justice where DAs and politicians are rewarded for getting tough on crime. The result is an excess of arrests and brutality (especially involving Black men). We lead the world in incarceration and many of those prisoners are unfit mentally. In addition, the punishment of prisoners continues after they’re released with disenfranchisement and criminal records that keep them from finding jobs.

If you buy Inishiren as a microcosm for the mainland and the civil war on it, maybe you just nod along with the movie although the feud doesn’t really fit that conflict. A better analogy might be Brexit where England hurt its own economy in the name of reclaiming its identity to get back at the rest of Europe. Then there’s the Republican Party whose leaders run for office in order to dismantle the government and destroy the planet to get back at the liberals.

The island scenery is stunning and the acting is fine, but at is core The Banshees of Inishiren is bitter and mean-spirited. Maybe that’s appropriate. Or maybe it’s just cynical.

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