Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In Character: Brendan Gleeson

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.

Five Essential Roles
The General (1998)
Martin Cahill
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)
Winston Churchill
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
In Braveheart
Braveheart (1995)
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)
Troy (2004)
The Village (2004)
Harry Potter films (2005-2010)
Beowulf (2007)
Green Zone (2010)
Albert Nobbs (2011)
Safe House (2012)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Patricia Clarkson
Viola Davis
William Fichtner
John Hawkes
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Jeffrey Wright


  1. Alex, I'm a huge fan of Brendan Gleeson. I just caught up with the Guard a few months ago, and he makes that movie. I loved In Bruges, and the chemistry between Gleeson and Colin Farrell is really surprising. The third one that sticks out to me is The General, which was my first exposure to Gleeson in a starring role. That one is right up there with In Bruges for his best performance.

    1. I agree with everything you said. In fact, I hadn't even heard of The General, but I found it on Netflix a few weeks ago and was floored. He's so charming and menacing in that. Great performance indeed!

  2. Great post! Gleeson always brings a very unique heartbreaking quality to his characters - like in The Village and Cold Mountain. Because of his acting his characters have much more depth than they had in the raw script. Love his work pretty much everywhere and he was great in The Guard, though I couldn't finish the film.

    1. I agree that his gives his characters a great amount of depth (which is the perfect word to describe his acting). I'm with you on The Guard, I loved him (and Don Cheadle, and Mark Strong) in it, but the film as a whole was seriously lacking.

  3. Brendan Gleeson is totally awesome. I have The Guard on my DVR cue but I'm probably going to watch it next month as I'll be busy with other films for the month.

    I love him in In Bruges and he was one of the few things in Cold Mountain that I liked.

    1. Really agree about him in Cold Mountain... I didn't like that movie at all, but I loved him in it.

      Can't wait to here what you think about The Guard.

    2. Brendan definitely made that film worthwhile too see.

  4. His battle-thirsty villainous role in Kingdom of Heaven was short, albeit great, too!

    1. Oh yeah, decent flick, but he's crazy ferocious in that!

  5. I've loved this dude in everything I've seen him in. In Bruges is one of the funniest movies ever made, and I love his "Harry, you're a cunt" speech in that film.

    1. "You and you're cunt fucking kids."
      "I retract the bit about your cunt fucking kids."

  6. You got me again. When you did this before I was thinking "where's The Station Agent" and you had it as the best. This time I was thinking the same thing about In Bruges and once again you had it as the best. I named it one of my Top 5 non-tradition Christmas movies last Decemeber. Here's my review, if you are interested:

    1. Oooh nice, love hearing all of this In Bruges praise. I'll check out your post tomorrow morning!

  7. Alex, I couldn't agree more on everything you mentioned here. He's just an all around terrific character actor. You are right, In Bruges is his greatest performance and one of the best films I've seen in recent years. I loved him in The Guard (which I just caught last week) but yeah, the movie was certainly flawed on many levels.

    Loved this write up, Alex! Thanks for shining a light on a great performer.

    1. Thanks man! I had no idea people loved Gleeson as much as I did, so all of these feedback for him is really awesome.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  8. I haven't seen In Bruges! :O :O :O Very bad of me, but I have seen the Guard and loved him in that!

    1. Lemme put it this way, if you liked him in The Guard, you will fucking love him in In Bruges. He's priceless. Let me know when/if you watch it!

  9. Great choice for a spotlight! Gleeson is one of those actors who is enjoyable in everything he's in. I'm with you 100% on The Guard -- it really is a shame that movie was so overlooked last year.

    1. I guess The Guard was just a little too much for most people. Fair enough, but he was so good in it. Thanks for reading!

  10. I know this is two years old, but if you haven't had the chance yet, you need need need to see Gleeson in Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh). In all honesty I liked it much better than The Guard, and I truly think it's maybe Brendan's finest and deepest role to date. Also starring Chris O'Dowd (from The IT Crowd), another great under-the-radar actor who deserves a write-up such as this.

    Anyways, I've been reading these In Character pieces of yours for a few days now. Made up a sizable list of flicks I need to see, including many I should revisit. Thanks for the site! Keep up the fantastic work, man.

    1. I've really been meaning to catch Calvary because I'm hearing NOTHING but good things. So thanks for the push on this one, I'm looking forward to it.

      And thanks so much for checking out the posts. Really happy to hear that they could provide some good movie recommendations. Thanks again!

    2. I also appreciate how you reply to pretty much EVERY. SINGLE. COMMENT. on here.

      I should also mention how you've quickly become my favorite cinema blogger. My IMDb Watchlist has exploded ever since I started visiting the site (even though I really need to start whittling away at the other 500+ flicks on it). And I also really dig how you give equal consideration and respect to both older and newer films, as well as even plenty of studio fare that most film snobs would deem "too mainstream." Big kudos, my man.

      Even though I'm not usually a fan of short films (mostly because, as a fellow young filmmaker, I grow unreasonably jealous about all these great ideas and stories and techniques that I selfishly wish I thought of instead), I'm gonna make it a point to check out your work.


    3. Wow man, thanks for this comment, means a lot.

      Honestly, it just seems flat out rude to me to NOT respond to comments. I myself don't comment on sites that don't comment back. But I love hearing that you dig the site and have discovered some new flicks.

      Now, in terms of shorts, I totally get what you're saying. Here's my stance on it: I love watching shorts or micro-budget features because, typically, there's nothing in them that another young filmmaker can't do themselves. The story has to be your own, true. But the way in which the film was made is usually rather simple. But, again, I completely get where you're coming from. And I SO appreciate you checking out my work. Thanks man!

    4. Oh, Jesus, how could I forget the most important part?! I saw Calvary last night, based solely on your recommendation. Loved it. I agree, easily one of Gleeson's best and a much superior film to The Guard. I literally had no idea what Calvary was about, which was a perfect way to go into to it. Such deeply serious material, but I loved how McDonagh injected his pitch black humor into it. Thanks again for the reco - so glad I saw it.

  11. Glad to hear you enjoyed Calvary, man. I oughta see it again so I can really unpack it, pay attention to its nuances. That ending, dude. Damn. Harsh stuff. And for some reason I dug the camera-slider montage showing the other characters (à la Donnie Darko).

    Gleeson has so come outta left field for me. New favorite actor? I think so! He was the essentially the lone saving grace in this little "quirky indie flick" (cue exasperated eye roll... I know, I know) called The Grand Seduction, which wasn't all that bad but not really anything to write home about. Pseudo-recommended if you wanna see a goofy Brendan ham it up surrounded by some very gorgeous Newfoundland scenery.

    Also: Good luck on the post-production phase for Wait! Fingers crossed that sees the light of day soon. I'm currently a film student at SFSU focusing on a career in editing. As much as I'm fascinated by the prospect of becoming a cinematographer, producer, or maybe just maybe a director (but doesn't fucking everyone wanna do that? pffffft whatever), post-prod is by far the least intimidating for me. Haven't tackled a full-length feature yet though. Yikes. Give me a few years...

    Anyways, I'm rambling. Expect to see me around on the comments from here on out. Until next time, my man.

    Matt Nichols (San Francisco, CA)

    1. Calvary would benefit from a rewatch, because... yeah, that ending. You know it's going to be one of them, but I was so pleased with how they handled the whole thing. And Gleeson... yeah, dude is a beast. Calvary does come close to being his best role for me. In Bruges still might take it, but it's close.

      Thanks for the kind words about Wait. It's getting really close to being completed (just sound mixing and color correction to go), which is just insane. I love that you're so interested in the post-production process of filmmaking. That is, bar none, the most fun and fascinating aspect of the whole filmmaking experience for me. The possibilities are endless, and I love it.

      Thanks for leaving your Vimeo site here. Gonna check out some of your work this weekend!

    2. Dude, editing is the shit. When I pull out all the stops in FCP, I can turn the most banal and mediocre footage into something bitchin'. And by "bitchin'" I mean "slightly less banal and mediocre." It mostly just ends up being a stupid audio-visual experiment complete with lame inside jokes and weird-ass electronic music. So... don't expect much if/when you give my stuff a look-see. But I truly appreciate it either way!

      By the way Full Circle was quite incredible. Phenomenal use of color and light, and just great camerawork all around. Bravo, bravo.

    3. Wow, thanks man. God, I was such a baby when I made that film! So young and green. Literally had no idea what I was doing with the camera or especially in editing. Everything I've learned, I learned from other movies. But it's very nice to hear you say that.

      And hey, it's great to drop mediocre footage into an editing timeline and just rip that thing up. Play around, experiment, have fun. It's a great way to learn.

  12. Damn, this one would be really hard for me to pick. I think I might have liked him in The General even more than In Bruges. Hmm, maybe not.

    Heck I don't know. Gleeson is always good - we're just splitting hairs!

    1. I know right? Tough call. Dude is always on point.

  13. Gleason was also wonderful supporting Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush in John Boorman's
    The Tailor of Panama. If there ever was an actor who can convey the joy of acting it is Brendan
    Gleeson. Give credit to Boorman for giving the plum role of Cahill in The General to a relatively
    unknown but fearless character actor. Bravo, Brendan!

    1. I saw The Tailor of Panama as a kid and didn't understand a lick of it. Maybe I should give it a rewatch.