Brendan Gleeson’s got that perfect character actor face. He’s got the look of a charming, affable everyman – a human teddy bear that you could slug back a few pints with at a local pub. And it is precisely Gleeson’s delicate sensibilities that make his caring characters more humane, and his ruthless characters more evocative.
The man can play any role in any genre, always to effective results. He’s the burly bruiser, the sensitive dad, the crooked cop, the remorseful hit man, the iconic political figure. He’s whoever he needs to be, in that perfect, Gleeson way.
The General (1998)
For his first starring role, Glesson delivered an expert personification of Martin Cahill, a real life Irish thug who was iced out by the Provisional IRA in the early ‘90s. Not unlike Tony Soprano, Cahill is a charming, articulate beast of a man who will torture people he trusts, just to make sure they’re on the level.
The General was a critical darling that went (and remains) unseen by many, and that’s a shame. Because at the heart of it is an actor subtly begging to break out and flex his full bravado. Which Gleeson does, with vigor.
28 Days Later (2002)
If you haven’t seen Danny Boyle’s exquisite revisionist zombie flick, then skip to the next role, because I’m going to spoil the movie here. Or at least Gleeson’s contribution to it.
I love 28 Days Later, and, aside from the film’s miraculous use of Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent),” Gleeson’s thoughtful, comical performance as Frank is my favorite part of the flick. So when a single drop of zombie blood accidentally falls into Frank’s left eye, the result is that much more distressing. He analyzes the situation in microseconds, assures his daughter he’s fine, and then, with heartbreaking tenderness, tells her how much he loves her. What final words. Utterly devastating.
Dark Blue (2002)
Jack Van Meter
Playing the remarkably corrupt Commander Van Meter in Ron Shelton’s little-seen Dark Blue, Gleeson embodied what may be, perhaps, the most vicious son of a bitch he’s ever played.
Van Meter is a man beyond redemption. Commanding his own elite unit of corrupt LAPD scumbags, Van Meter lies, steals, cheats and kills just to, what? Make a little extra money? Ignite a race war? Make good on a hustle? You never really know the full extent of Van Meter’s motives, and because Gleeson plays the role with such charismatic restraint, our lack of knowledge is tested in intriguing ways.
Dark Blue is one of those very rare Hollywood corrupt cop action films that I enjoy unapologetically. And although Kurt Russell’s grab-‘em-by-the-balls ferocity is the real standout here, credit Gleeson’s cold blooded Van Meter with making Dark Blue as worthy as it is.
Into the Storm (2009)
In The Gathering Storm, Albert Finney played a remorseful Winston Churchill all the way to an Emmy, which is a feat Gleeson repeats with the sort-of sequel, Into the Storm. Mind you, although Finney and Gleeson are playing the same man, they’re playing him at two very different times in his life, with Finney tackling the older, reserved Churchill, and Gleeson demonstrating a benevolent leader at the height of his war powers.
Who’s better? I can’t really say. What I do know is that Into the Storm demands several moments of great, oratory prowess from its lead, which Gleeson handles in stride, but it’s his many moments of foreboding silence that make this performance so memorable. Because of his penchant for nailing whatever accent is required of the role, it’s pretty rare that a film simply let’s us watch Gleeson. But when Into the Storm calms down from its Cliff Notes-style remembrance of history, we’re given a chance to do just that: watch.
The Guard (2011)
Sergeant Gerry Boyle
I was honestly a bit surprised that Gleeson’s performance as the aloof, pleasantly corrupt Gerry Boyle in The Guard didn’t merit more awards attention last year. Granted, voting members of awards ceremonies aren’t very keen on highlighting performances in which crooked Irish cops take acid, sleep with prostitutes and fondle recently deceased men. (And they certainly don’t appreciate when all of that is done in jest, as is the case here.) But Gleeson is just so goddamn priceless as Boyle. A man of loose morals? Sure. But that’s kind of the point.
The Guard is littered with the lacerating, profane humor, but it’s not without a heart. Gleeson plays Boyle as an old-school, Irish-country bumpkin, and he has a complete blast doing it. Believe me, The Guard is seriously fun stuff, with appropriate hints of humility.
The Best of the Best
In Bruges (2008)
In his Golden Globes acceptance speech for Best Actor, Colin Farrell described In Bruges as “simultaneously profound and beautifully comic and wonderfully painful, filled with delightful remorse and, more than anything else [containing] the sweetest redemptive qualities.” And although Farrell was talking about the film’s script, his words can be applied to Gleeson’s performance as well. (For the record, Farrell’s words could speak to his own work in the film, too. He won that award for a reason.)
My point is, In Bruges is one of the best, most odd films to come out in the past 10 years. It is beyond funny (you haven’t heard a witty analogy until you’ve heard the shit that comes out of Farrell’s mouth here), shockingly violent (the film’s random outbursts of violence echo Pulp Fiction), and, because of Brendan Gleeson, endowed with undeniable sensitivity.
Gleeson’s Ken is a moralistic hit man, hiding out in the gorgeous city of Bruges after his hot-headed partner, Ray (Farrell), botched a simple hit. Ray wants to play. He wants to drink and snort and screw. But Ken knows better. He knows their menacing boss, Harry (a flawless Ralph Fiennes) sent them to Bruges under false pretense, and it isn’t until that pretense is revealed that Gleeson is really given his chance to shine.
Ken is kind and audacious – a voice of reason amongst the film’s dynamic hysteria. And his final moment in this film is an act of such grand compassion, that I have no choice but to call it the finest scene of Gleeson’s impeccable career, which, you know, if kind of saying something.
Other Notable Roles
The Butcher Boy (1997)
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
Harrison’s Flowers (2000)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Gangs of New York (2002)
Cold Mountain (2003)
The Village (2004)
Harry Potter films (2005-2010)
Green Zone (2010)
Albert Nobbs (2011)
Safe House (2012)
William H. Macy