If you watch Gabriel Byrne’s work closely, there is almost always a moment when his characters doubt themselves. Through his strong, Irish accent, Byrne will often deliver a loud, imposing monologue in which he cements his point. And then he’ll look away. For a half a second, his eyes dart to the side. He’s wondering if he’s actually right, or trying to convince himself that he’s right. It’s a little moment, the slightest of gestures, but it’s almost always there.
In those brief moments of panic, I want nothing more than to follow whatever Byrne character I’m watching. I want that man to expose his insecurities and make me believe what he believes. Which, more often than not, Byrne does quite easily.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
As the angel on one shoulder, Tom proves to be an excellent, subtle enforcer. It isn’t until the angel quietly morphs into the devil that we come to understand what a perfect manipulator Tom really is.
The plot for Miller’s Crossing is far too dense for me to reveal in full here, but it goes without saying that as Tom Reagan, Byrne had is work cut out for him. Snap, crackle, pop dialogue, strict emotion, ethical ambiguity – Tom Reagan is the quintessential antihero, and Byrne brings him to life beautifully.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
We gather rather quickly that Bill Cleg is not a good guy. He cheats on his wife, scums around, neglects his kid – no good. In fact, one could assume that Bill is, in part, to blame for his son’s insanity. Despite brief screen time, Bill is the type of character we get to know exceptionally well due to the actor playing him. We know him, until all is finally shockingly revealed.
Take, for example, the scene in which Peter carefully, patiently, painfully admits to Louise that he has been a sex addict for many years, including during their marriage. Watching Byrne tediously make his way through the monologue remains one of my personal favorite moments of Byrne’s career. Peter is a small performance, but a vital one all the same.
When the men return home, their significant others, including Stewart’s wife, Claire (Laura Linney) are sympathetic to the horror they’ve experienced. That is, until the women find out the men enjoyed the rest of their vacation before reporting the body.
Jindabyne’s first act is a wonderful set up: maddening, puzzling, and shocking. And its subsequent acts give every performer involved a chance to deliver some of their finest work. Watching Byrne and Linney emotionally battle it out (again) over what is right and what is wrong proves to be utterly devastating.
The Best of the Best
In Treatment (2008-2010)
Dr. Paul Weston
James Gandolfini’s performance on HBO’s The Sopranos was the best television performance of all time. And while I won’t declare that Byrne’s work as Paul Weston is better, I certainly would like to throw his name into the conversation.
As one of the country’s leading psychologists, Paul Weston is a kind man trying to do right by his patients, while keeping his personal life afloat. The unique set up of In Treatment allowed for one episode every weekday – the same patient every Monday, the same patient every Tuesday, and so on, all the way until Paul visits his own shrink every Friday. So, essentially, we see snippets of Tom’s personal life, literally seconds of him trying to keep his marriage alive, or trying to raise his angst-ridden daughter. The bulk of Paul’s time is spent caring for others. We see him handle a case of transference after a beautiful, female patient falls in love with him. We see him cope with the sudden death of one of his patients, or handle the tumultuous emotions of a suicidal teenage girl. Through expert writing and impeccable acting, we come to understand Paul through sentences, resulting in one of the best acting performances I have ever seen.
HBO let In Treatment live for three seasons, and while I could’ve watched Paul Weston continue to work for years on end, I’m glad I got to know him so well in the brief time we had together.
Other Notable Roles
Into the West (1992)
Point of No Return (1993)
Point of No Return (1993)
A Dangerous Woman (1993)
Little Women (1994)
A Simple Twist of Fate (1994)
Dead Man (1995)
Mad Dog Time (1996)
The End of Violence (1997)
The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
Enemy of the State (1998)
End of Days (1999)
Ghost Ship (2002)
Vanity Fair (2004)