Men, guard your friendships – heed the warning of the Banshee of Inisherin

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The premise of The Banshees of Inisherin – now a magnet for awards – is encapsulated in an early exchange between the two leads: Colm abruptly ends his longtime friendship with Pádraic, who is understandably looking for an explanation.

“I just don’t like you anymore,” says Colm.

“You like me,” says Pádraic.

“I don’t,” says Colm.

While many codes of heterosexual male friendship remain unspoken, there are two obvious breaches of protocol here. First, there’s never an end to the opening – the demands of male friendship are traditionally so low that it would be more of an effort to break off the relationship than to maintain it. It would certainly require more talk.

Secondly, among men, not liking someone is not a particular obstacle to a lifelong friendship. It’s hard to even think of such a relationship in those terms. Do I really like this guy? Does he like me? How would I even know? We spend all our time together insulting each other. Why would that matter?

What follows in the film is a gruesome rupture of a friendship (in an attempt to escape Pádraic, Colm threatens to cut off his fingers) that we viewers never knew in her prime. But since it’s a friendship between two men, we can guess what it was like: outgoing, essentially frivolous, and entirely dependent on intimacy or shared interests – in this case, going to the pub every day at 2pm. And all this shrouded in a haze of comforting insignificance. Apparently that’s what Colm can’t stand in Pádraic any longer. “There is no room for boredom in my life anymore,” she says.

Men like to think that because our friendships are slow-growing, thorny, and low-maintenance, they’re as durable as a drought-tolerant hedge. But in fact they are terribly fragile; neglected, they often simply shrink. They may seem flexible, but they’re not built to withstand a lot of change.

When writer and performer Max Dickins got engaged to his girlfriend, it caused a crisis – he couldn’t think of a friend close enough to be his best man. It turned out that the most obvious candidates were people he hadn’t spoken to in ages. His male friendships disappeared one by one. He launched an investigation that became a fun and engaging book, Billy No-Mates: How I Realized Men Have a Friendship Problem.

Dickins immediately recognized something familiar about The Banshees of Inisherin, even though it is set on an island off the coast of Ireland a hundred years ago. “I thought it was one of the best depictions of male friendship and male mental health I’d ever seen on screen,” he says. “It’s rare that a friendship, especially a male one, is the absolute center of the narrative.”

This is not, as you may have noticed, a terribly flattering portrayal of male friendship. It’s not the one from Dickins’s book at the beginning either. The friends he reconnected with always seemed to insist on a social setting that gave the meeting a hidden purpose – a sports bar or other activities – making face-to-face communication superfluous. Conversation was dominated by what Dickins calls “the jazz of casual brutality that men reserve for the people they like.”

Perhaps you recognize this image of male friendship: emotional illiteracy, devoid of ritual, oscillating between careless abuse and complete silence. First of all, our friendships seem ill-considered. No one seems to know what they want or need from them.

But if you’re a man, it’s hard not to feel a certain attachment to this arrangement, or to think that maybe, in a way, it’s exactly what it takes. “We can think about friendship a little too much,” says Dickins, “and obsess over the idea that you have a best friend who is forever and always there and will be the perfect cipher for you.” He says that male friendships are more like a kind of journey when you’re both side by side with your eyes fixed on a common goal. “When men lose that place on the horizon, often that friendship becomes less close,” she says, “because that’s the juice in it. That’s what pushes it forward and keeps it together.” Male friendship is like a club – members come and go, leave and rejoin.

The supposed insufficiency of male friendship has spawned many movements and groups over the years, some proposing formal male bonding rituals, others trying to restore the traditional sense of masculinity that the modern world has somehow robbed us of. Many “mythopoetic” men’s movements – exemplified in Robert Bly’s book Iron John – have aged poorly. But there are still many gurus – Jordan Peterson, say – who supposedly tell hapless men the hard truth, when in fact they are telling them what they want to hear: that men are the real victims of a victim culture.

What Dickins learned – and his book shows it fully – is that male friendships, like all friendships, require regular grooming to last. As a man, you may find that your closest male friends are just the ones who are up for all the social tasks. As for the friendships themselves, well, you won’t know what you’re missing until they’re gone; for all their emotional opacity and brilliant cruelty, male friendships are still essential. As Dickins writes (paraphrasing the American sports writer Ethan Strauss): “Yes, masculinity is a bit toxic – that’s what I like about it.”

But be careful – everything is fun until someone loses a finger. Or several.

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