But McDonagh makes a case for a fool being the only person who can understand life’s cruel absurdities so clearly.
Pádric and Colm are fools, too, in the Shakespearen sense, like the gravediggers of Hamlet or Feste in Twelfth Night. The audience relaxes with humor, maybe a tinge of superiority over these clowns, until one thinks about how deep their jests cut to the heart of universal anxieties. They debate good and evil, and their place in the status quo of their world, but an epiphany is always just out of reach.
Pádraic is probably not “one of life’s good guys,” as he’s known for being a bit of a mean drunk. He’s quick to point out others’ hypocrisy, quick to assert that he’s smarter than Dominic (surprise: he’s not), and his grudge with Colm ultimately leads him to act casually cruel. Meanwhile Colm is so self-important and stubborn, he sends even Inisherin’s mild-mannered priest into a rage, as he chases Colm from a confessional without absolving him of his sins, hilariously threatening him with eternal damnation if Colm should die: “You’ll be pure fucked!” Colm, who can only be rescued from his despair by entertaining himself with literal self-destruction, seems fine with that.
Death’s presence looms over the island, even if the war seems far away. Inisherin’s resident witchy widow, Mrs. McCormick, with her black dress and a sheep hook instead of a scythe, bears an uncoincidental resemblance to the Grim Reaper in The Seventh Seal. The ornery nutbag dispenses gossip and dark prophecy with equal glee, and much like the Banshee of Colm’s thwarted song, she portends deaths, of which there are a few. She does not scream, not like Siobhán, the only other woman of real note in the story, and who is clearly over the pointless grudges of the small-minded men around her. She yearns to be brave enough to flee for the hope of a better life on the mainland. Mrs. McCormick only observes, amused, as these sad, small mortals wrestle with their nature. She’s in on the joke; we’re cackling with her because we, too, know this story can only end with death in triumph.
The Banshees of Inisherin feels more theatrical than cinematic, with its small cast and beautiful but remote setting that is unmistakably Irish in its gorgeous dreariness. Inisherin is also a kind of mystical Anywhere, like the roadside in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, another great tragicomedy about two existential fools. Gunshots thunder in the distant mainland where the Irish Civil War is at its peak, but the folk of Inisherin care little for it outside of fodder for idle chatter.
They’re more concerned for the state of their souls.