There is a phrase among Rabbis – ‘Turning the gem’ – which describes how certain Biblical stories will always appear different at each angle you hold it at. Always ones to cross our t’s, our aim here is to share the passionate moments that arise out of a film that’s made us think, debate, even argue. Like watching a car crash, this isn’t a review of an event, but a way to capture the conversations – and the interpretations – that come out of it.
Beware: Spoilers abound.
I’ve known Harry – my former editor – for the best and worst part of six years in Ireland. We lived in a country that was naturally contrarian, and in Irish fashion, he was not just my editor, but my best friend and landlord: managing (badly) our shared tenement in Dublin where you could hear the clack of horse hooves late into the night.
After the skipfires and heroin ice cream trucks, it was mostly miserable. But between Wild Mountain Thyme and the giggling Rings of Power midgets, pop-culture would have you believe Ireland was wonderfully strange – like an evergreen lump of cereal tacked to a Lucky Charms commercial. So we’ve always had a special spot in our hearts for Martin McDonaugh, whose feature film In Bruges brought the bittersweet irony of Ireland to the big screen.
Re-uniting with Harry, we hunkered into Trisha’s bar, Soho, ready to discuss the film – and our memories – over neat whiskeys.
What made the movie for me was it was such an accurate depiction of Hiberno-English dialect and mentality. The characters are never direct – they talk around problems and live through contradiction. The priest’s casual, conversational question to Colm of “how’s the despair?” is so characteristically Irish; it’s like something you’d hear over a pint.
There was also this self-awareness to characters like Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and the banshee I really enjoyed; they discuss themselves as actors in a narrative that might feel out of place to a foreign observer. This awareness, really, is what pushes Colm to his pursuit of memorability: he is uncomfortably aware of his own mortality, which is why he can’t seem to avoid confession.
Since In Bruges, I’ve always felt that MacDonaugh’s movies have been one long confession booth: filled with characters searching for the conversation that’ll absolve them of guilt. Like O’Conolley, MacDonough shines in making those final moments anti-climaxes; redemption, like with Ray and Mildred, is always in absurdism.
In Three Billboards, the shift felt a little too trite – the tone didn’t match the subject matter. Here, it’s pitch perfect culchie culture. Although the grammar – the ‘so’ as a question – was a great touch, there were so many moments that brought the setting to life: the steady eyes of the pubmen holding every story accountable, the way news and gossip would travel quicker than fact, or Colm’s relationship sense of mental health as a taboo.
An older generation, say Yeats or Keane, would have played it all as doomed, but there’s a knowingness to the issues at hand here – a sense of it being as fixable as a small conversation (or the lack of it) that makes McDonagh’s melodrama deeply comedic.
Maybe, but I don’t know if it’s a pure comedy either. In a setting that’s been demystified, Colm is obsessed by a spiritual legacy that’s almost a malaise, while Padraig is a much earthier character. He’s bound to the land in a Yeatsian ideal as the small farmer dedicated to his animals. Davis’ panning shots really situate Padraig in that dull Irish landscape – the land isn’t just where he belongs, it’s who he is.
Padraig avoids the dark, deep melancholy that Colm seeks out, and Jenny simply wards off the loneliness that Padraig can’t even discuss – it’s why he’s so shocked and wounded when his sister, looking to relate to someone, asks him if he ever feels lonely that he leaves the house.
There’s a self-serving ignorance to him; Padraig is so tied to the sensory world that he cannot really communicate. It’s more of a tragedy, that way, when he destroys Colm’s abstract conception of memorability – if he’s “never heard of Mozart”, then whose going to remember Colm’s name?
Or who’s going to appreciate it?
It’s the battle of memorability and niceness. Underscoring it is the faint crack of gunfire from the mainland, this mundane sense of an outside world falling apart. But when the policemen boasts about watching an execution, unaware of whose executing who, or when Padraig is shocked to flip his calendar and discover a month has passed – you realize only the green post boxes would tell you the politics have changed here.
That isolation is really embodied in Padraig and Colm. It’s a movie, to me, about Irish migration. How do you deal with the hollowness at the core of an ordinary life off a wind-battered coast of Ireland – do you pursue something greater or do you settle into a life of normality and kindness?
But there was a synthesis, too, between Padraig and Colm’s views that solved your question. Both characters change for the better and while Padraig’s descent into miserliness is the comedic foil of the movie, Colm, really, is its philosopher. You can laugh, but I’ve always thought MacDonaugh’s motif as a writer was in the ‘midget’. It’s the unacknowledged constant of each of his films: the little people and animals that – out of bigotry – feel ridiculous to an audience. In many ways, an island off an island (off an island) is that midget.
Padraig’s naive kindness is a social obligation: it’s woven into the pastoral setting that Colm loathes. It’s only when Padraig becomes argumentative and ‘likable’, that Colm sees him as an individual. But at the same time, Padraig refuses to let go of the idea that we all measure up to the same height – it’s why he dotes and protects the vulnerable, it’s why he rescues Colm’s dog, and more importantly, it’s why he never leaves Colm alone. There’s this beautiful moment by the close of the film, when you realize Padraig’s finally reached Colm. It’s when Colm suddenly tells the priest that God should care about miniature donkeys. It’s more than just a facetious comedy – it’s a change in outlook. Because of Padraig, Colm’s appreciating the absurd: that if God can care about the smallest, most helpless parts of His world, then there might be hope for a scenic shithole like Inishirin.