A sequel doesn’t have to be a sequel, per se. There’s such a thing as a sequel by association. Or anticipation. The new movie can take certain elements from the earlier one — director, stars, location, tone, style (take your pick) — and extend or develop them in such a way that the older movie and the new one are kin. In that sense, “The Sting” (1973) is a sequel to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), or “The Irishman” (2019) to anything in Martin Scorsese’s filmography with mobsters in it.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” has that kind of relationship to “In Bruges” (2008): same stars, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, same writer-director, Martin McDonagh. There’s a further, sort-of connection: irresistible scenery. Instead of late-medieval architecture, “Banshees” offers stark windswept beauty. The movie’s set on a small island off the west of Ireland. It’s so small the priest who says Sunday Mass comes by boat, then leaves until the following week. There’s also a touch of gruesomeness — this is Martin McDonagh we’re talking about — but nothing like that of “In Bruges.”
That’s it for resemblance. Instead of present-day hit men in a foreign country, Farrell and Gleeson play feuding friends from a century ago in the only place they’ve ever known. Instead of crackerjack wit, there are mulled-over silences, interrupted by terseness. Pádraic and Colm, the friends, are like Beckett characters who’ve wandered into an Irish tourist board promotion. “Banshees,” compared to “Bruges,” isn’t just a very different animal, it’s a lesser one: flat, ponderous, unsteady.
Pádraic (Farrell) is shocked and hurt to discover that Colm (Gleeson) will have nothing to do with him. It’s not as if there’s been an incident or insult. As Colm explains to Pádraic’s sister (Kerry Condon, “Better Call Saul,” who gives the movie’s most engaging performance), “He’s dull, Siobhan.” Colm’s clearly not wrong. But part of the movie’s oddness is that something so obvious should dawn on him so suddenly.
Not much happens. People drink. People smoke. People talk. There are pauses (hello, Beckett). They talk, and pause, some more. They walk a lot. There’s a death. There’s dismemberment (tame by McDonagh standards, but all the more gruesome for being utterly irrational and repeated). A character flees the island — and that is the right verb.
That’s about it. “Banshees” is like a short story trying to be a novel. The extra pages get filled with the postcard views. There are bits of wit — again, this is Martin McDonagh we’re talking about — but overall “Banshees” is lugubrious and slow. Or, if you prefer, lugubrious and leisurely. Either way, it’s shot through with sadness, even desolation. The pallidness of Carter Burwell’s score, in a rare misfire for him, doesn’t help things any.
Music matters in “Banshees.” Colm is a fiddler. (Pádraic and Siobhan own a small dairy farm.) The closest he comes to explaining his refusal to see Pádraic anymore is that he begrudges the time taken away from his music. In a nice touch, it was Gleeson who wrote the tune that Colm composes. It shares a title with the movie. “I don’t think they scream to portend death anymore,” Colm says of banshees. “They just sit back and observe, amused.”
The feud being about the superiority of art to life is one way to explain it. That seems awfully flat-footed, but McDonagh gives indications that way. “I have this tremendous sense of time slipping away,” Colm says. What time he has left, he wants to devote to music. Not that an aggrieved Irishman has ever felt the need for explanation — let alone justification. McDonagh knows from fierce, unrelenting unreasonableness. Anyone who’s seen his previous movie, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), knows that.
“Banshees,” takes place in 1923, though everything feels so timeless on the island these events could be taking place yesterday or back when William of Orange was still in Holland (well, almost). The date does signify. A couple of times the boom of cannon is heard from the mainland. The Irish Civil War is going on. Is the feud, and its senselessness, a metaphor for that armed conflict? That also seems awfully flat-footed, but McDonagh’s too self-aware just to throw in such a reference for period detail.
He fills out the cast with a set of types: a busybody store owner/postal mistress, a mean police constable, an addled young man (Barry Keoghan, “Eternals”), a terrifying old woman, Mrs. McCormick. As implacably played by Sheila Flitton, she’s a pipe-smoking version of Death, in “The Seventh Seal” (1957). If Inisherin has a presiding spirit, she’s it. Time slipping away, or slipped away already?
Farrell faces a doubly difficult challenge: to play a wholly unimaginative man and show how his bafflement, at Colm’s rejection, turns to anger. He meets it. Gleeson’s task is more elusive. Colm’s resolution sets events in motion, but most of those events Pádraic undertakes. Gleeson has such authority that that hardly matters. Does anyone in movies today have a more lived-in face? For that matter, does anyone have a richer, more melodious voice? When Gleeson’s onscreen, those banshees don’t just sit back and observe. They surely listen, too.
THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 114 minutes. R (language throughout, some violent content, brief graphic nudity)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.