Absurdity and Escalation

I’m sincerely fascinated by politics. But also often dismayed. When two candidates run for a government position, their political campaigns inevitably seem to reach a point of absurdity and escalation: tribal chants… chest-thumping… name-calling… mud-slinging… and emotional appeals to the undecided. I’ve even observed the same thing in church politics: with two sides so convinced of their righteousness that they keep ratcheting up the tone and the tension of the disagreement to (hopefully at least a more decent Christian version of) absurdity and escalation. It’s hard to understand or explain exactly how this happens, but sometimes art can give us a better language to describe the phenomenon than language itself.

While Marci and I were staying in Quebec last week, I got to read two full books (Life After God and No Longer at Ease), and we got to watch three critically-acclaimed full-length feature films. Somewhere in Queens was highly-relatable for us as parents of young adults. Coda made me cry on multiple occasions. But the one that’s stuck with me the most since last week was The Banshees of Inisherin.

It was kind of funny, kind of sad, kind of weird. Marci said this is exactly what she expects (and fears) from Academy Award nominees — and I know what she means. But I’ve also come to appreciate the film more and more in the aftermath as I’ve had more time to process.

The Banshees of Inisherin is about two friends, named Colm and Pádraic, who go through a sort of break-up process. At first, Colm just tries to ignore Pádraic. When pressed, Colm says that he just finds Pádraic boring and explains that he doesn’t want to waste any more time with him when he could be applying that same time and energy to other pursuits, like writing music. When Pádraic can’t stop pestering Colm in a futile attempt to understand why the break-up needed to happen, Colm tells Pádraic that he just wants to be left alone — to the point that he threatens to start using his gardening shears to cut off one finger for every additional time that he’s bothered. When Pádraic just cannot keep his distance, Colm makes good on his threat and throws his dismembered finger against the front door of Pádraic’s house.

It’s totally absurd. And dark and weird and discomfiting, like so many other cinematic stories that gain attention from the Academy. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that it’s a perfect picture of the absurdity of all human conflict: the escalation… the absurdity… the utter lack of ability to understand what’s happening…

Eventually, Pádraic decides that he can’t take it anymore. He gets drunk at the pub and then bursts in on a little jam session where Colm is playing his fiddle (minus one index finger) with some other musicians in a different corner of the pub to give him a piece of his mind. And it seems, for a moment, that there’s some kind of breakthrough. Colm gets called out for his lack of “niceness,” and Pádraic proves that he’s not just “nice” and “boring” to the point that he even seems to impress Colm. But one of the main refrains from that part of the movie is that “Niceness doesn’t last.”

And the rest of the film certainly plays that out.

Pádraic eventually decides to try another round of his “No more Mr. Nice Guy” approach, and Colm responds by cutting off four more fingers which he throws at Pádraic’s front door while he happens to be away (taking his sister — the only reasonable figure in the film —to the boat that will take her to a new job and a new life on the mainland). When Pádraic returns to his house, he finds the fingers, and he finds that his beloved miniature donkey has choked to death on one of the fingers. So, he storms off to confront Colm and tell him that he’s going to burn his house down at 2PM the next day… And then, that’s exactly what he does — while Colm chooses to sit inside the house!

Pádraic brings Colm’s dog with him as he rides away from the burning cottage, and that seems to be the end of it… until we see Colm standing by himself at the beach the next day, having evidently decided to escape the fire at the last minute. Colm suggests that maybe they’re “even” now, but Pádraic says “never.” Still, there’s one last line between the two of them, when Colm says, “Thanks for lookin’ after me dog for me, anyways,” and Pádraic responds with a smile that seems half-nice and half-vindictive and replies, “Anytime.”

Again, it’s such a weird movie. Far less accessible than Somewhere in Brooklyn, and far less enjoyable than Coda. Yet it’s The Banshees of Inisherin that I can’t stop thinking about. It really does seem to reveal something significant about human nature, and I’ve been thinking about how meaningfully the conflict between Colm and Pádraic mirrors the conflicts between the Provisional Goverment of Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (which was likely in view by the film’s producers)… but also the conflicts between Ukraine and Russia… or college girls who like the same boy… or different churches within our network who’ve taken slightly different places on the theological spectrum… or whatever!

It’s nothing but absurdity and escalation until somebody’s mini-donkey chokes on a dismembered finger and takes things to a whole new level.

I feel personally challenged by this sad, but brilliant, portrayal of human conflict. It’s given me a new level of eagerness to sidestep the absurdity and escalation to whatever extent I can, like Pádraic’s sister Siobhán. Or, even better, I want to live according to the Beatitudes, spoken by Jesus: “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9).

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