Gabriel Byrne has received critical acclaim and numerous awards for his recent role as Dr. Paul Weston in HBO's, In Treatment, a drama series about a psychotherapist and his weekly sessions with patients, but the Irish actor has been playing some of the most compelling characters to have ever graced the screen for over thirty years. Although the actor has mentioned in interviews that he hates being described as brooding, American audiences have come to know him as such. This is particularly amusing since Byrne gained popularity in Ireland as a soap actor, something we equate more with fluff than talent in the US. Of course, it's no surprise that on paper, Irish soap operas seem to be far more tragic and symbolic than their American counterparts.
The prevailing theme in Byrne's career seems to be playing the man who acts on instinct (and often impulse) -- the most colorful example of this being his portrayal of the decadent Lord Byron in Ken Russell's Gothic, where his demonic character perhaps set the standard for future roles where he battled the devil as a priest (Stigmata) or actually was the devil (End of Days). These roles, however, are cartoonish (literally so in Cool World) compared to Byrne's performances in lesser known films like Into the West where he played a fallen man (Papa Reilly) who was once King of the Irish Travelers, but left the road when his wife died and took off with his two sons to live in a dreary housing project. With the help of his sons and an unlikely guardian, a white horse, he is able to regain his dignity once more and reconnect with his children.
The film suffered from misplaced marketing efforts that depicted the gritty but warm-hearted family adventure tale with a magical realist twist as a goofy kid and animal flick. The film remains one of my favorite stories (written by Jim Sheridan and David Keating) and even though Byrne has a lot less screen time than the boys at the heart of the movie, he seems at his most comfortable and delivers a touching performance without losing that darkness that audiences have become so familiar with.
And that same darkness envelops Byrne's characters in The Usual Suspects and Spider but his best role remains the Irish mobster, Tommy, in the Coen Brothers' gangster film, Miller's Crossing. Tom Reagan is a gloomy portrait of a man whose bitterness is palpable, but never interferes with his coldly calculating nature. The film was highly underrated at the time of its release and the complexity of the relationships within are unraveled so that nothing is as it seems -- except Tommy who remains nearly the same by the end of the film.
That Byrne's character never changes in a dramatic fashion is a legitimate complaint about Miller's Crossing, but not one that can be laid at the actor's feet. Byrne has taken on the difficult task of playing a character who's unlikeable at best, yet he holds the audience's attention for the duration. His hangdog and slightly disheveled appearance masks what's going on beneath the surface with Tommy. The actor infuses Reagan with a ruthless sense of cunning. We're privy to it in his vocal exchanges with other characters in the film, but the real beauty of the performance emerges through the non-verbal cues. Even in the simplest moments, one always gets the feeling that Reagan is surveying the landscape and plotting -- it's like watching a chess grandmaster play a novice; the grandmaster is always at least two moves ahead. Byrne conveys this through his mannerisms and posture -- the way he stands casually in the background of an early scene where Leo and Caspar debate whether Bernie should live or die, never saying a word, but clearly figuring out the angles, is one of many subtle techniques the actor uses to bring Reagan to life. The film drives the point home in the next scene, where Byrne then breaks down everything in great detail for his boss. This dichotomy in the performance -- the ability to be a chameleon at one moment and a driving force the next is a big part of why this stands out as Byrne's finest moment.
No less impressive is the quiet cool Byrne brings to the role in stressful moments. Reagan isn't a tough guy. Instead, he's a smart guy in a world filled with tough guys. Even though he's likely to come out on the short end of any physical confrontation (and does at every turn), he's unflappable. When Bernie says "I want to see you squirm," we never really do -- Byrne's Reagan isn't wired that way. The closest the character ever comes to losing his cool is when he vomits during a scene where The Dane and his cronies take him to look for Bernie's body and the way Byrne plays it, it's more for show than inspired by fear. Reagan may not be a pleasant man, but we end up identifying with the character because Byrne portrays him in a way that makes him appealing in spite of his numerous flaws. Anyone can play Dudley Do-Right or the pure monster, but it takes a much more skilled performer to take an imperfect character and get the audience to identify with him.
While Reagan may not change in a profound way by the time Miller's Crossing ends, he does change at least somewhat. Like the rest of the performance, Byrne presents Tom's new sense of equilibrium in the last act in a subtle fashion. In a final scene with Bernie (played by John Turturro), Turturro once again begs for his life by saying "Tommy, look in your heart." Unlike the earlier sequence, where Reagan does exactly that, this time around he simply replies "What heart?" and fires. The look on Byrne's face belies how he's different -- he's a harder man and his stoic demeanor while committing cold-blooded murder demonstrates it perfectly. The film's last sequence, between Reagan and Leo, also shows Byrne highlighting the character's newfound personal growth in a way that avoids clobbering us over the head with it.
Gabriel Byrne is one of our most talented performers. Yes, he's appeared in some clunker films over the years (just like everyone else in Hollywood), but choosing his best role was easier than I imagined. People can (and will) make the case for films like The Usual Suspects and I can definitely see where the logic in that choice is. However, for me, it's all about Miller's Crossing. Byrne's portrayal of a "prickly pear" of a man caught in the middle of a gang war embodies everything I love about the actor's work in general: the smoldering intensity, the subtle nuances of his body language, his gift for making the most mundane dialogue sound cooler thanks to his accent and his ability to make even a deeply flawed character someone the audience can relate to. The role of Tom Reagan may not be a particularly daring choice for Byrne's best role, but great work is great work and deserves to be celebrated.