Note: This essay contains spoilers for The Banshees of Inisherin, Calvary, and In Bruges.
“The things you’re taught as a child…they never really leave you, do they?”
These words could be at home in any of a number of works from either Martin or John Michael McDonagh. As it happens, it was younger brother Martin who wrote that line for Brendan Gleeson’s character in his 2008 black comedy-drama In Bruges, but the principle is very much at work, for example, in John Michael’s 2014 drama Calvary and Martin’s new black comedy The Banshees of Inisherin—both of which also star Gleeson, among other common elements.
Born and raised in London by Irish-born parents, the McDonagh brothers grew up in an Irish enclave, educated in Catholic schools by Irish priests, and spent their summers in the West of Ireland, where their parents were from. The brothers’ lapsed Catholicism is a factor in some of their other works, notably Martin’s Leenane Trilogy, a cycle of stage plays. For John Michael, Calvary is the second film in a planned trilogy along with his 2011 breakout film The Guard (which has only minor religious elements) and a work in progress, The Lame Shall Enter First (a title alluding to the Gospels, but borrowed from Flannery O’Connor). It’s tempting, though, to view Calvary alongside Martin’s Banshees and Bruges as a sort of unintentional McDonagh brothers trilogy: a “lapsed Catholic” trilogy, or, a bit more accurately, a “bad Catholics” trilogy, since most or all of the characters in Banshees and many of the characters in Calvary are at least minimally practicing.
Beyond Catholic cultural elements and religious and moral themes, these three films share a number of hallmarks common to the brothers’ work: absurdism and humor; gruesome violence and grotesque elements; questions of guilt, punishment, and redemption; and a dark cynicism at least approaching misanthropy or nihilism, though not entirely despairing of hope. Going further, each of the three films is set in a picturesque, ostensibly idyllic location that for its characters becomes a kind of ambiguous limbo, if not a manifestation of hell. The central conflict in each case turns on a deadly grievance among male characters, with Gleeson playing one of the principals as a man with a capacity for violence who, in a pivotal third-act moment, meets a potentially deadly threat with Christlike nonresistance. A female character in at least two films represents some sort of grace, while children and animals embody innocence, and the killing a child or a beloved pet, even accidentally, may be regarded as an unthinkable crime, beyond all hope of forgiveness or atonement. Scenes set in confessionals figure in all three films, but they’re settings more of conflict than of reconciliation.
Presumption and despair
When In Bruges debuted in 2008, its overtly religious and spiritual themes attracted considerable attention from both Christian and secular cinephiles. The film’s blend of talky comedy and strong violence elicited obvious comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, whose work also includes scattered religious references (most memorably Samuel L. Jackson’s heavily fictionalized “quotation” from Ezekiel 25:17 in Pulp Fiction). The religious elements in Bruges, though, are considerably more persuasive. While visiting a museum in the titular Belgian city, a pair of hitmen, Ken (Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), contemplate a number of grim works of religiously inflected art, notably the Hieronymus Bosch triptych The Last Judgment, and their discussion of heaven, hell, and purgatory leads them to wrestle with their conflicted guilt over their past actions. They also visit Bruges’s Basilica of the Holy Blood, where Ken climbs the massive staircase to the upper chapel to touch the medieval reliquary said to contain the actual blood of Jesus.
The instigating incident in Bruges is an ambush in a confessional. Ray’s first assignment as a hitman is to murder a priest, whom he pretends to approach for confession before gunning him down—in the process accidentally killing a young boy waiting to confess such innocent shortcomings as moodiness and badness at math. Calvary opens with a similar confessional ambush, though the killer-to-be doesn’t immediately shoot Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle, instead announcing his intention to murder him the following Sunday. (When the killer, a butcher named Jack Brennan played by Chris O’Dowd, finally does shoot Father Lavelle, first in the leg, another young boy is present. Concern for the fate of the boy is among the final thoughts of each priest.)
Calvary announces its religious intentions with an opening title card bearing a familiar aphorism: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” In keeping with convention, the line is miscredited to St. Augustine, but coming from McDonagh it’s as much an allusion to Samuel Beckett, who was fond of the pseudo-Augustinian quotation and worked a reference to it into Waiting For Godot. Despite the symmetry of the quotation, despair is a much more potent snare in the McDonaghs’ films than presumption. Characters in all three of these films contemplate taking their own lives, with at least one death by suicide and/or a failed attempt in each. In Bruges Ray’s accidental killing of the boy drives him to suicidal guilt, while Gleeson’s character in Banshees, a fiddle player named Colm, is asked in confession about his ongoing struggles with despair, and assures the priest that he has no plans to “do anything about it.”
Banshees is set in a fictional island community off the Irish coast in 1923 during the Irish Civil War: a time when Irish society was overwhelmingly Catholic. The confessional scenes get more contentious than a typical celebration of the sacrament of Penance, but they occasion no threats of murderous violence, nor does the movie contain religious quotations (or misquotations). Perhaps everyone on Inisherin goes to Mass, and there’s plenty of Catholic iconography, from a large statue of the Virgin Mary at a crossroads to assorted rosaries, crucifixes, and such. But this story’s religious resonances are largely sublimated into a key metaphor: Colm’s increasingly single-minded devotion to his music.
Pearls before swine
Banshees reunites Gleeson and Martin with Bruges costar Farrell, here playing an easygoing bore named Pádraic who has long been Colm’s drinking buddy, until one day he isn’t. There’s no instigating incident; Colm simply finds that he has no more time to waste in aimless chatting with a dull, limited man. Through some inner adjustment of perspective, Colm has confronted the finitude of his remaining time on earth, and he wants to accomplish something meaningful and enduring in the time remaining to him. What matters to him now is writing and playing music that he hopes will live long after he is gone.
As a foil for Gleeson’s more cultivated character, Farrell’s prosaic Pádraic plays a role not unlike that of his hitman in relation to Gleeson’s in Bruges. Bruges’s rich artistic and cultural heritage are of great interest to Ken—and to their employer, crime boss Harry Waters, played by Ralph Fiennes—but Ray has no eyes to see. To him the charming medieval city is merely “a shithole,” and he spits out the very word “culture” like a child tasting broccoli. There’s no similar foil for Gleeson’s priest in Calvary, but there’s a partial analogy in his associate, Father Leary: a vacuous man whose lack of character is one more cross Father Lavelle must carry. In both Calvary and Banshees, Gleeson’s character clears up a painful misunderstanding with an even more dismissive rebuff. Father Leary thinks Father Lavelle hates him; Pádraic fears he has somehow offended Colm. To the other priest Father Lavelle says, “I don’t hate you at all! It’s just you have no integrity—that’s the worst thing I could say about anybody.” Possibly even more crushing is Colm’s response to Pádraic: “You didn’t say anything to me and you didn’t do anything to me. I just don’t like you no more.”
This is perhaps not entirely true, and a stricken Pádraic protests, not implausibly, that Colm does like him. Even Colm admits that he spoke too harshly. Yet he’s in earnest about wanting to commit himself to something in a way that excludes the kind of indolent camaraderie that has until now linked him to Pádraic—nor is that all he’s prepared to sacrifice. When Pádraic proves slow to take a hint and won’t stop trying to talk to Colm, Colm resorts to a desperate if bewildering ultimatum: Every time Pádraic tries to talk to him, Colm vows, he will sever one of the fingers on his own left hand and give the finger to Pádraic.
There’s nothing unusual about seeking meaning or permanence in artistic pursuits. The alarming extremism of Colm’s commitment, though, evokes certain demanding sayings of Jesus in the Gospels: the parable of the pearl of great price that is worth selling all one has; the warning regarding the necessity of “hating” loved ones in order to follow Jesus; and, most strikingly, the exhortation to prefer to cut off one’s hand and pluck out one’s eyes rather than sin. Colm’s threat may be horribly misguided, but it reflects a misguided impulse of a religious sort.
Art, including music, can be understood as an actuation of the beautiful; and beauty, along with truth and goodness, points to God. The connection between art and God, implicit in Banshees, is already overt in Bruges, where the imaginative gap between Ken and Ray seen in the museum comes to a head in the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Ken’s imagination is captured by the idea of touching a phial containing Jesus’ blood—an exercise that seems pointless to Ray, who asks if he has to do it. “Do you have to?” Ken repeats incredulously. “Of course you don’t have to. It’s Jesus’ f***ing blood, isn’t it? Of course you don’t f***ing have to!” Ken may murder people for a living, but he grasps on some level that the grace of God, if it exists at all, is offered freely to whosoever will.
True and false conversion
Colm in Banshees goes to Mass and confession, but his faith appears to be conventional rather than personal or deeply felt. He lists his sins in confession with no real sense of contrition (mentioning, for example, “a bit of pride” before adding, “although I never really saw that as a sin, but sure I’m here now”). When the priest, angered by Colm asking about his own sins, refuses him absolution until next time, Colm retorts, “I’d better not be dying in the meantime then, eh Father? I’ll be pure f***ed!” Colm’s faith may be well described by Father Lavelle in Calvary, who says that for most people faith is merely fear of death. On the other hand, Colm may encounter God most profoundly when playing and composing. The summons to music has come to appear to him as a quasi-evangelical counsel, a near-monastic calling: a calling to renunciation. Not an eremitic calling; he still wants community. Just not the community of men like Pádraic, who can only watch enviously as Colm sits in the pub playing with a group of visiting music students with their own instruments. C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, describes how bonds of affection between brothers can be threatened by one party forming a new commitment:
One of them flashes ahead—discovers poetry or science or serious music or perhaps undergoes a religious conversion. His life is flooded with the new interest. The other cannot share it; he is left behind. I doubt whether even the infidelity of a wife or husband raises a more miserable sense of desertion or a fiercer jealousy than this can sometimes do. It is not yet jealousy of the new friends whom the deserter will soon be making. That will come; at first it is jealousy of the thing itself—of this science, this music, of God (always called “religion” or “all this religion” in such contexts) … Affection is the most instinctive, in that sense the most animal, of the loves; its jealousy is proportionately fierce. It snarls and bares its teeth like a dog whose food has been snatched away.
Colm’s music isn’t a new discovery, but he has undergone a kind of religious conversion, and Pádraic has been left behind. Despite the dire threat, the abandonment isn’t necessarily absolute or exceptionless: Colm seems more tolerant of Pádraic at certain moments transcending his normal dullness. At the pub a drunken Pádraic harangues Colm about the importance of niceness and Colm’s lack of that quality, to which Colm replies that niceness doesn’t last and is forgotten not long after a person dies, but music endures. When Pádraic’s sensible sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) tries to apologize for him, an amused Colm shrugs it off: “That was the most interesting he’s ever been! I think I like him again now!” Better still is Pádraic storming into Colm’s house to rage at him some more, but winding up genuinely enthusing with him over his newly completed piece, so that for just a moment they are actually friends again. (Colm’s piece is called “The Banshees of Inisherin,” mostly because he likes the double “sh” sounds.) On these occasions, it’s possible to hope that Pádraic may have gotten away with violating Colm’s rule without costing Colm a finger.
But then, of course, Pádraic ruins it. The first time, after sobering up, he tries to apologize to Colm, the one man on Inisherin who likes him better drunk than sober. The other moment is worse. Carried away by the fleeting renewal of friendship, Pádraic blithely reveals a terrible offense committed in the throes of jealousy: Coming upon one of Colm’s musical companions en route to the pub, Pádraic invents an appalling lie to send the young man packing back to the mainland as quickly as possible. (The cruelty of the lie is humorously driven home with maximum impact: Pádraic tells the student that his father is in danger of death after being hit by a bread truck—and doesn’t back down when the horrified student blurts out that his mother was killed by a bread truck.) By the third act, Colm’s left hand is bereft of fingers.
The tragic irony is that in the name of niceness Pádraic has become incredibly mean, while in the name of music Colm has deprived himself of the ability to play. Colm’s plea that he is entitled to peace and personal time is fair as far as it goes, but our obligations to those around us are shaped by history and circumstance; there’s a difference between not befriending a bore, or setting new boundaries in an irksome relationship, and summarily cutting off a bore with whom we have a long history of congeniality. We may be perversely reminded by Colm’s actions of some of Jesus’ sayings, but Jesus and St. Paul are agreed on the highest law of all. If I have the gift of music, so as to write masterpieces, and if I deliver my fingers to be chopped off, but have not love, I am nothing: a stringless violin, a bowless fiddle.
Second chances and human connection
Through a wrenching accident, Colm’s symbolic self-abnegation has unintended consequences: Pádraic’s beloved miniature donkey Jenny dies choking on one of Colm’s severed fingers. Much like the accidental killing of the boy in Bruges to the mob boss Harry, this is a grievance for the heartbroken Pádraic beyond all hope of atonement or reconciliation. Pádraic responds in a way remarkably evocative of the actions of Father Lavelle’s killer, Jack: He makes a promise of an attack on Sunday which he keeps, burning down Colm’s house as Jack burns down Father Lavelle’s church. Strikingly, Pádraic makes a point of keeping Colm’s dog safe from the fire, recalling Jack’s insistence just before killing Father Lavelle that it wasn’t he who killed the priest’s dog: that he wouldn’t do such a thing. In Banshees’ final moments, Colm—who unresistingly allowed Pádraic to torch his house—expresses a hope that the loss of his home might be sufficient penance for the donkey’s death. But Pádraic’s anger is his refuge from the pain of rejection, and he retorts that Colm would have had to die in the fire to end the matter. Even so, Colm thanks Pádraic for taking care of his dog, to which Pádraic responds, “Any time.”
Second chances are hard to come by in McDonagh brothers stories. As Colm and Pádraic spiral toward mutual destruction, another soul, Dominic (Barry Keoghan), the awkward, abused son of a bullying police officer, has died by suicide after his forlorn overtures toward Pádraic’s sister Siobhán were gently rejected. Only Siobhán has much chance of happiness, and that’s because she leaves Inisherin for a new life on the mainland.
Ken in Bruges has deeply personal reasons for his loyalty to and love of his boss Harry, but he also feels strongly enough about second chances to defy Harry’s order to kill Ray over the boy’s death. Instead, Ken puts Ray on a train to a new life, but circumstances thwart the escape attempt, and Ray winds up back in Bruges. Harry has a strict eye-for-an-eye code that is tested to the limit when he comes to kill Ken for his defiance, only to find to his amazement that Ken refuses to defend himself—a startling display of unresisting nonviolence that Harry can only compare, if not to Jesus himself, at least to Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth. Harry’s ad-hoc compromise is to shoot Ken in the leg, but soon afterward Ken sacrifices his life in a (probably vain) gambit to save Ray from Harry’s revenge. And Harry’s strict code ultimately prompts the mob boss to take his own life when he mistakenly thinks that he himself has killed a child.
Father Lavelle is vocationally committed to belief in offering second chances to everyone, from the man who has threatened to kill him to a former pupil imprisoned as a serial killer (Gleeson’s son Domhnall Gleeson). In his last week of life and ministry, though, Father Lavelle finds few if any takers. Toward the end, at a low ebb, he contemplates leaving town to dodge his appointment with death, but a brief exchange with a devout widow named Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze), whose husband the priest anointed on his deathbed days earlier, reorients him to his calling as a man for others. The very title Calvary underscores the Christlike way in which the priest goes to face his killer, vainly hoping to persuade him to change his mind. Shortly before this is one crucial interaction that is not vain: a final phone conversation between Father Lavelle and his adult daughter Fiona, in which he proposes that there is “too much talk about sins, to be honest, and not enough talk about virtues,” in particular noting that “forgiveness has been highly underrated.” He and Fiona then proceed to forgive each other for all that might remain to be forgiven between a parent and their adult offspring.
This exchange sets up a moment of ambiguous hope in Calvary’s final seconds. The last scene intercuts between Father Lavelle’s murder and a montage of the various locals whom the priest tried to help during his last week, presumably engaged in whatever they happened to be doing at the moment of the murder, with no hint of how word of the priest’s death may affect them. Then comes a brief, wordless final scene showing us one consequence of the murder: Fiona in a prison visitation room coming to speak to her father’s murderer. On her side of the glass partition, she picks up the phone, and Jack, after some hesitation, picks up his own phone. We see and hear no words spoken, but we are invited to hope that Fiona has come, at least in part, to speak words her father commended to her: words of forgiveness. In this, perhaps, is some kind of second chance for Jack.
We may think here of Father Lavelle remarking to his bishop that the man who made the threat on his life “doesn’t want to be ignored anymore. He wants to make contact.” This is also, of course, what Pádraic wants, and poor Dominic too. It might be tendentious to propose that it’s what Ken and Ray want too, though an argument could be made. Like the films jointly made by the Coen brothers, the individually made works of the McDonaghs may be felt at times to veer indeterminately between existential angst over human brokenness and mean-spirited contempt for their characters. Yet there is grace in the very fact that characters in these films continue to hope that others will find peace, as Ken hopes for Ray, as Father Lavelle hopes for everyone, and as even Colm hopes to the end for Pádraic.
Peace is embodied, above all, in the widow Teresa, who disagrees with Father Lavelle’s suggestion that her husband’s death seems unfair. “Many people do not lead good lives,” she reflects, “and they do not feel love. That is what is unfair. I feel sorry for them.” There’s more bad news than good news in the McDonaghs’ work, but there is no good news without the bad. One way and another, there are signposts here pointing out the most excellent way, for those with eyes to see.
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