By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 31, 2014 at 10:20AM
Editor's Note: This post is presented in partnership with Fox Searchlight Pictures and the theatrical release of CALVARY - opening in select theaters August 1st. For more information, visit http://Calvary-Movie.com/
There are actors who struggle to overcome audience expectations, and then there's Brendan Gleeson, who appears to have cracked the system. The Dublin native has the gravitas and measured gaze of late period John Wayne, but pairs these attributes with a disarmingly affectionate quality at odds with his commanding physicality. More than a mere gentle giant, Gleeson dominates the screen while hinting at so much more taking place beneath the surface.
The actor's face is widely known, but his particular talent is tough to pin down. Some may know him mainly as the trenchant official Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody from the final three installments of the "Harry Potter" franchise, and while that role — as an officer committed to persecuting wizardly crimes — fits his hardened demeanor, it only starts to get at the essence of his abilities.
"Calvary," John Michael McDonagh's dark and untraditional mystery set at a remote seaside Irish community, provides a clearer portrait of Gleeson's range. The actor plays world-weary Father James Lavelle, who's told by an anonymous figure during a confessional in the first scene that the psychotic man will kill the innocent priest in a week's time.
Rather than trying to discover the identity of his potential murderer, James spends most of the movie reflecting on his life, spending time with his estranged daughter and chatting with various disgruntled locals. As the story builds toward the final confrontation teased in the opening, we're constantly forced to scrutinize the priest's behavior rather than the assailant's identity: Is James resigned to his fate and getting his affairs in order or planning a defense?
Though essentially a benevolent figure, James is also a quiet, somber man alone with his relationship to the world. As we watch him grapple with a community crippled by alcoholism and abusive relationships, his greater spiritual conundrum emerges by implication. That's largely a testament to Gleeson's expression. He wears a peculiar half-scowl that suggests an intricate and unpredictable thought process at the center of the chaos around him.
By portraying an off-kilter authority figure, Gleeson's role in "Calvary" contains some echoes of his previous collaboration with McDonagh, the dark comedy "The Guard," in which Gleeson played a coarse police sergeant. Whereas his "Calvary" character radiates gentle vibes above a tough interior, "The Guard" flips that equation. Seemingly hailing from the "Bad Lieutenant" school of police work, Sergeant Gerry Boyle is seen drinking on the job and engaging in other seedy activities even as he confidently goes about his job with a sense of duty. That leads to a hilarious buddy comedy setup once Don Cheadle arrives as the straight-faced CIA agent tasked with helping the sergeant capture a group of drug traffickers.
But it's clear from scenes in which Gleeson cares for his elderly mother that much of the sergeant's fierce, unwieldy work ethic comes from a real commitment to doing his job. Gleeson embodies this remarkable anti-hero with a deft balance of vulgar energy and charisma. By turning this apparent mess of a man into a sophisticated lawman worth rooting for, he frees the material from the conventions of the genre by infusing it with an element of surprise rooted in the ambiguity found Gleeson's best work. Are we really supposed to feel for this guy? By the end, as always, he earns it.
Gleeson manages this effect even when he's cast as bad guys. For "In Bruges" (directed by John Michael McDonagh's brother and noted playwright Martin McDonagh), Gleeson plays a hitman working alongside a conflicted Colin Farrell. Though it's Farrell's Ray who narrates the story, Gleeson's Ken is crucial to keeping the story in motion: After Ray goes rogue, their employer orders Ken to kill his partner, but Ken chooses to let the man go. While he's working on the wrong side of the law, Gleeson's character invents his own version of it. It's the same distinct moral code that animates all of Gleeson's best work.
That ongoing sensibility finds its most literal manifestations in a trio of historical performances. The 1991 BBC production "The Treaty" found him playing Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins, while in the 2009 HBO movie "Into the Storm," he portrayed Winston Churchill. But many would agree that his true breakthrough role arrived in John Boorman's 1998 crime saga "The General," in which he played real-life Irish criminal Martin Cahill. Constantly eluding the authorities at every turn, Martin is a brooding, conflicted man who seems to be addicted to his immorality but committed to doing things his way at all costs. Once again, Gleeson turns a disreputable villain into a character haunted by relatable conundrums.
Even Gleeson's minor roles generate a commitment to tough, uncertain states. Think of the frantic parent in "28 Days Later" attempting to push his child away in the moments before he turns into a flesh-eating monster. As the Spartan king Menelaus in "Troy" and the mercenary Walter "Monk" McGinn, he's insuppressible.
But it's his recent Irish productions with the McDonagh brothers that provide the best insight into Gleeson's abilities: He excels at playing troubled men faced with insurmountable problems and confronting them head-on. No matter what happens, his commitment is a dependable source of comfort.
Indiewire has partnered with Fox Searchlight Pictures and the theatrical release of CALVARY - opening in select theaters August 1st. CALVARY’s Father James (BRENDAN GLEESON) is a good priest who is faced with sinister and troubling circumstances brought about by a mysterious member of his parish. Although he continues to comfort his own fragile daughter (KELLY REILLY) and reach out to help members of his church with their various scurrilous moral - and often comic - problems, he feels sinister and troubling forces closing in, and begins to wonder if he will have the courage to face his own personal Calvary. For more information, visit http://Calvary-Movie.com/