This being a work by McDonagh, it is a comedy of mortification and exasperation. It starts with a beautiful aerial shot of the title Irish island, all green under a clear blue sky (in this image it only rains at night, which, given the actual weather conditions in Ireland, puts the film in yet another genre , that of fantasy). Carter Burwell’s score evokes idyllic times, and we see that life is rather easy for Pádraic (Farrell) a dairy farmer who lives with his sister in a modest cottage and, apparently, calls on his old friend Colm (Gleeson) almost every day for two. Before leaving, he makes a remark about Colm to his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), who sarcastically replies, “Maybe he doesn’t love you anymore.”
This turns out to be a bit of an inadvertent prophecy. Because Colm puts off Pádraic. In several chats, we learn that Colm has come to find Pádraic boring (and the talk of seriousness is indeed limited, though amiable), and that he thinks he has better things to do with his time, like composing songs on his violin. When Colm confesses at the island church, he reveals that he is also suffering from despair. He suffers from a little more than that.
“Banshees” is set in 1923, and several times its characters talk about hearing gunshots go off on the not-too-distant continent. The conflict between Colm and Pádraic serves as a convenient metaphor for the Irish Civil War at that time, but the film works best when it doesn’t bring that metaphor to the fore. Which becomes rather macabre, as a commentary of a particularly Irish type of stubbornness. As in: Colm tells Pádraic that if the latter continues to talk to Colm, or Colm, after Colm has made it clear that he does not want Pádraic’s company or conversation, Colm will cut off his finger. Now keep in mind that Colm is a fiddler who wants to keep playing the fiddle, so it’s actually, as a strategy, a worse sight than cutting off your nose to spite your face.
And so, after Pádraic comes face to face with Colm again, Colm actually does. One of the film’s most interesting tricks is the way McDonagh makes the viewer identify with Colm earlier than Pádraic. We feel: yes, it’s a brutal break of friendship on Colm’s part, but why can’t Pádraic just leave the guy alone? Some of Colm’s points are well taken. Colm is probably better for Pádraic than Dominic, the son of the extremely rude policeman who makes Pádraic look like an urban talker, but sometimes those are the breaks, in terms of social life. But once the fingers start to come loose, your jaw relaxes and your eyes open. Where is it going to end?