Wednesday, July 3, 2013

In Character: Gabriel Byrne

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.

Five Essential Roles
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Tom Reagan
Out of the vast collection of color characters the Coen brothers have given us over the years, Byrne’s Tom Reagan is one of my favorites. As a wise-talking right hand man to Irish American political boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), Tom Reagan is the angel on Leo’s shoulder. He tells Leo what the best decision is, and the best way to execute it. Tom delivers his information sarcastically but concisely; always to the point, but always with his own cynical narrative.

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)
Dean Keaton
I just love everything Byrne does in this film. I love the way he slowly exhales cigarette smoke, silhouetting himself in that perfect film noir way, right before he meets his doom. I love the way he tells Stephen Baldwin, “Why don’t you just calm down?” I love the way he plays the crook so perfectly trying to play it straight. There’s an attitude to Dean Keaton that makes him oddly menacing. Every usual suspect in this film is threatening in one way or another, but Keaton is a guy who really imposes fear. A stylish and very effective performance.

Spider (2002)
Bill Cleg
Everyone in Spider takes a back seat to Ralph Fiennes. It’s Fiennes’ movie, and he carries it hauntingly. But when Byrne does show up in flashbacks as Fiennes’ father, the film takes on an even more ominous tone than usual.

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.

P.S. (2004)
Peter Harrington
On the surface, it may seem as though Peter Harrington isn’t an essential character for the tender little film, P.S. But as the ex husband to Laura Linney’s character, Louise, Peter presents an opportunity to watch Byrne flex his best, most anguished skill.

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.

Jindabyne (2006)
Stewart Kane
While on an annual fishing trip with his buddies, Stewart Kane discovers the brutally beaten body of a dead girl in the river. Stewart calls his friends over, they stare in horror, and they opt to immediately call the authorities. But it’s too late in the day. They don’t have enough daylight to hike back to the road and report the dead girl. So they go to sleep. Soon after they wake up the next day, the group decides to finish their fishing trip, and report the body when they’re done with their vacation.

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
A few weeks ago in this column, I asked if 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
In Dead Man
A Soldier’s Tale (1988)
Shipwrecked (1990)
Into the West (1992)
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)
Stigmata (1999)
End of Days (1999)
Ghost Ship (2002)
Shade (2003)
Vanity Fair (2004)
Wah-Wah (2005)
Vikings (2013-present)


38 comments:

  1. He's really sexy :P

    My earliest memory of him is in the Little Women movie, though I kind of hated him in that.

    I loved him in Miller's Crossing and The Usual Suspects though.

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    1. He is rather dreamy, isn't he?

      Glad you're a fan of his work! I love him in most everything.

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  2. I haven't seen In Treatment, so the first role that I thought of was definitely Miller's Crossing. Byrne has one of those great movie faces that brings weight to almost anything. He even makes a brief appearance in Enemy of the State work. I also really liked his appearance in Wenders' The End of Violence. He rarely gives a bad performance.

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    1. Rarely indeed. I love his little moment in Enemy of the State. Dude takes full control of the screen when he's on it. End of Violence was really close to making the cut here. I love him in that.

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  3. I love Gabriel Byrne. The dude is an amazing actor who never gives a bad performance. I'm upset that I never got to see In Treatment as I heard good things about it.

    My favorite performance from him is in Little Women as Friedrich Bhaer. Usually, he's known for playing dark characters but this role has him being something I didn't expect. Someone who is playful but also a man who offers so much to Winona Ryder's character as well as helping her become a better writer. It's a very subtle performance that I think exudes everything that I love about him.

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    1. In Treatment is fantastic. I really think you've like its set-up, and the overall tone of the show.

      I really enjoy his role in Little Women as well. I've only seen that movie once, so I'm due for a rewatch.

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  4. That was an insightful analysis. I love the first two paragraphs! And I agree with most of the work you have chosen to examine. I would have picked Wah Wah over PS, probably, but that's a quibble. Kudos for your statements about IN TREATMENT. I am glad you have included Mr. Byrne in your In Character studies. He deserves more attention! Also: he has films and tv series out that you have probably not seen (I, ANNA; SECRET STATE; JUST A SIGH, among others, including QUIRKE which starts this fall) so you have these to anticipate...thanks again for shedding light on my favorite actor.

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    1. Stella, thanks so much for your support of this post. I know how big of a Byrne fan you are, and your praise means the world to me, so thanks!

      And thanks for all the great suggestions. I definitely have some more Byrne work to do!

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  5. Nice write-up. Gabriel Byrne is very underrated. Loved him in Miller's Crossing and In Treatment.

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    1. Hey Ty, good to hear from you, thanks for stopping by man. Glad you're a Byrne fan, he rocks in those two roles.

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  6. I love this article. I had birthday funds and finally purchased the first season of In Treatment. This is gold on the small screen. I duelly adore his performance in both Stigmata as he tries not to give in to temptation via Frankie and Smilla's Sense of Snow as he plays an awkward character against Julia Ormond's snide and snippy one, his character can't help but be fascinated by her. Love it.

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    1. Thanks! So glad you like In Treatment. That is total gold, couldn't agree more. You've sold me on Smilla's Sense of Snow, I need to watch that ASAP.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  7. Enjoyed this article. Great actor indeed. Very glad we're seeing more of him lately.

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    1. Thanks! I'm so glad we're seeing more of him as well. He deserves the best, most complex characters.

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  8. I suspect every person who watched In Treatment made a transferrance at some point. It's just impossible to resist his talent/charm.

    Miller's Crossing is definitely one of my favorite films of his, and I agree, one of his best performance.
    He also broke my heart as a broken father in Into the West when I was a kid. Go watch that film again.

    And Just a Sight (Le Temps de l'Aventure).... *Sight* is precisely every woman's fantasy, and he does that really well too.

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    1. Ha! LOVE your first sentence. So damn true. You're right, I do need to watch Into the West again, and I'll be on the lookout for Just a Sight as well. Thanks!

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  9. Let's not forget Point of No Return in 1993....directed by John Badham and starring Bridget Fonda. I had no idea who Gabriel Byrne was but quickly became a fan.

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    1. That's a pretty groovy little action film right there. Love Byrne in that. Damn, I haven't seen that movie in years.

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  10. So many of his recent films seem to be in suspended animation till they come out. Waiting for their arrival. Have never heard of PS. Wah Wah, yes, deserves much acclaim. He is an actor with two degrees of separation in the acting world. I adore him and his work. Can't get enough of the beauty.

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    1. So glad to hear you're a fan. I love his work as well. I've only seen Wah Wah once, so I really need to check that out again. He is perfect in P.S.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  11. The fans are coming out of the woodwork! He is such an emotional and cerebral actor and a beautiful human being. Did not notice him until In Treatment ( and I HAD seen Miller's Crossing! and the Usual Suspects!) but then after the transference was complete in Ep 1, I have truly savored his body of work. Stigmata and Point of No Return are personal favorites but I wanted to mention Virginia's Run and Into the West, he works so well with children, IT's Paul and Sophie are so lovely together.
    And, it must be said, no one wears Armani like he does in End of Days. Thanks for a great Character piece, Alex!

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    1. I know right?! It's so awesome. I love that such a talented guy like Byrne has such a dedicated following.

      I consider myself a great admirer of his work, but obviously I have some catching up to do. Love that people like you have given me so many great suggestions. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  12. Great stuff man. I haven't seen him in much, but I loved his performances in The Usual Suspects and Miller's Crossing.

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    1. Thanks dude. Love him in those flicks.

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  13. Finally some recognition for the only man in my life. I have sadly to say I have not been able to keep up with the bhoy's films like I should have, but I'd like to thank you for your insights about some of his roles. My first encounter was Excalibur in 1981 and then I saw him as Papa Reilly and I lost myself again. I wish his films would play here in the States more. Thank you for this sweet little piece. Made my heart flutter you did.

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    1. Hey Kim, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such a kind comment! I'm so glad you liked the article, and are such a Byrne admirer. He's the best, isn't he?

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  14. Great man. Fierce, honest, blessed with talent. Will get great parts for years and years to come (that is, if we are lucky enough he chooses to keep working). Talented in more ways than 'just' acting. Wonderful story teller. Heard an interview last year, in which he spoke fiercely and openly about a sensitive subject. Didn't know Byrne's work too well at that time. But a few words was all it took: just one sentence made me finish writing my first book, three months sooner than expected. Thanks, man.

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    1. Great comment here, thanks for stopping by and writing it! Really happy to hear that you're a Byrne fan. I'd love to find that interview you mentioned, as well as scope out your book. Is it available online?

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  15. Great post, I've always thought he was an underrated actor.

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  16. Terrific performance in The Usual Suspects, and my introduction to the actor. I think Miller's Crossing might be his best, for me. Fucking love that film.

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    1. Usual Suspects was my intro to him as well. And yeah, Miller's Crossing fucking ROCKS!

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  17. Thanks for the excellent "In Character" study of my favorite actor! I'd also add to the comments above about "Wah Wah" (a gem of a movie) as well as "Simila's Sense of Snow" (which can be boring when Byrne is off screen, but ultimately rewards in the end).

    I met Gabriel in person several years ago and discovered that he's a lovely human (as much off screen as on). Meeting him made my later viewings of his movies that much more rewarding!

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    1. Thank YOU for reading and commenting. I have since seen Wah Wah and I completely agree, a great little film. Simila's Sense of Snow is one I haven't heard much of. Definitely going to check that one out.

      So cool that you got to meet him. And very cool to hear that he's such a nice guy in real life.

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  18. Well, how to begin to talk about Gabriel ... is so difficult to talk about his versatility, and his characters or himself, because he is fascinating, he has that natural aura of man resolved and who knows what he wants, he knows exactly what he has to say and why. He is the kind of man that any other would be and every women would like to have, but Gabriel is, beyond all, a gentle, kind, intelligent and insightful human being.
    For me personally, it is very difficult to talk about him, because I have no passion, crazyness fan or anything like that, what I have is an immense admiration and affection, because he changed my life in many ways and taught me that to be happy, just listen to the voice of your heart. It was with his smile and his always right words, I found the course of my life. So I'm grateful to his affection for everyone, who he finds.

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    1. Wow, Andrea, thanks so much for this insightful, heartwarming comment. I'm so pleased to hear that Byrne's work has impacted you in such a meaningful way. Really, that's great. He really is a vastly talented performer. I simply love him in everything.

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  19. Miller's Crossing and The Usual Suspects are two of my all time favorite movie. He is so great in both of those. But i just realized i have not really seen much else from him. In Treatment was a show i always wanted to start watching, but never got around to and then just kind of forgot about it. It's not one a lot of people talk about anymore, but you make me want to give it a shot again. Maybe i should put that on the schedule of shows i want to watch now.

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    1. If you're a fan of Byrne and great, great writing, then you'll love In Treatment. No bullshit, that show has some of the best writing I've ever seen on any show ever. It really gets people and the human condition. And Byrne is flawless in it.

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