Men, guard your friendships – heed the warning of the Banshees of Inisherin | Tim Dowling

The Oscar contender may be set in the Ireland of a century ago. But it offers a very modern lesson on how fragile male bonds can be

The premise of the film The Banshees of Inisherin – now attracting awards like a magnet – is encapsulated in an early exchange between the two main characters: Colm abruptly ends his longstanding friendship with Pádraic, who, understandably, seeks an explanation.

“I just don’t like you no more,” says Colm.

“You do like me,” says Pádraic.

“I don’t,” says Colm.

Although many of the codes of straight male friendship are unspoken, there are two obvious breaches of protocol here. First, one never ends things overtly – the demands of male friendship are traditionally so low that it would be more work to break off an acquaintance than to maintain it. It would certainly involve more talking.

Second, among men, not liking someone is no particular barrier to lifelong friendship. It’s hard to even think of such a relationship in those terms. Do I actually like this guy? Does he like me? How would I even know? We spend all the time we’re together insulting each other. Why would it matter?

What follows in the film is a grisly dissolution of a friendship (in a bid to escape Pádraic, Colm threatens to chop off his own fingers) that we, the audience, have never known in its prime. But because it’s a friendship between two men, we can guess what it was like: companionable, fundamentally unserious and wholly reliant on proximity or shared interests – in this case, going to the pub at 2pm every day. And all of it shrouded in a fog of comforting irrelevance. This, apparently, is what Colm can no longer abide about Pádraic. “I just don’t have a place in my life for dullness any more,” he says.

Men like to think that because our friendships are slow-growing, studded with barbs, and require little tending, they are durable, like a drought-resistant hedge. But in reality they’re terribly fragile; untended, they often simply shrivel up. They may seem flexible, but they’re not constructed to withstand much in the way of change.

When the writer and performer Max Dickins got engaged to his girlfriend, it triggered a crisis – he couldn’t think of a close enough male friend to serve as his best man. Some of the most obvious candidates, it transpired, were people he hadn’t spoken to in ages. His male friendships had, one by one, slipped away. He embarked on an investigation that became a funny and engaging book – Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem.

Dickins instantly recognised something familiar in The Banshees of Inisherin, even though it’s set on an island off the coast of Ireland a century ago. “I thought it was one of the best portrayals of male friendship, and also of male mental health, I’ve seen on the screen,” he says. “It’s pretty rare that a friendship, especially a male friendship, is the absolute centre of a narrative.”

It’s not, as you may have gathered, a terribly flattering portrayal of male friendship. Neither is the one in Dickins’ book, at first. The friends he re-established contact with always seemed to insist on social settings that gave the meeting an ulterior purpose – a sports bar, or some kind of activity – rendering direct communication unnecessary. In terms of conversation there was a predominant mode, what Dickins calls, “the jazz of casual brutality that men reserve for people they like”.

You may recognise this picture of male friendship: emotionally illiterate, devoid of ritual, wavering between light-hearted abuse and total silence. More than anything else, our friendships seem unthought-through. Nobody quite seems to know what they want from them, or what they need.

But if you’re a man, it’s hard not to also feel a certain affection for this arrangement, or to think that maybe it is, in some sense, exactly what’s required. “We can overthink friendship a little bit,” says Dickins, “and kind of get obsessed about this idea that you have a best friend that is for ever and will always be present and the perfect cipher for you.” Male friendships are more like a kind of travel, he says, with the two of you side by side, eyes fixed on some shared destination. “When men lose that spot on the horizon, often that friendship will become less close,” he says, “because that is the juice in it. That is what’s pushing it forwards and keeping it together.” Male friendship is also like a club – members come and go, leave and rejoin.

The supposed insufficiency of male friendship has spawned a lot of movements and groups over the years, some pitching formal male bonding rituals, others trying to re-confer a traditional sense of masculinity that the modern world has somehow robbed from us. A lot of the “mythopoetic” male movements – typified by Robert Bly’s book Iron John – have aged poorly. But there are still plenty of gurus out there – Jordan Peterson, say – purporting to tell hapless men hard truths when they’re really just telling them what they want to hear: that men are the true victims of victim culture.

What Dickins learned – and his book amply demonstrates – is that male friendships, like all friendships, require regular maintenance to keep them going. As a man you may well find your closest male friends are simply the ones prepared to do all the social heavy lifting. As for the friendships themselves, well, you won’t know what you’re missing till they’re gone; for all their emotional opacity and genial cruelty, male friendships are still vital. As Dickins writes (paraphrasing the American sportswriter Ethan Strauss): “Yes, masculinity is a little bit toxic – that’s what I like about it.”

But be careful – it’s all fun until somebody loses a finger. Or several.

  • Tim Dowling is a regular Guardian contributor


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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