The movie opens on an English gangster at his ease: Ray Winstone lays prone by his pool, baking in the Spanish sun. This is Gal, out of prison and enjoying the good life at his hillside villa with his ex-porn star girlfriend Deedee and best friend Aitch, icing down his steaming body and enjoying an easy banter with pool boy Enrique. High above the house the earth shifts, the camera rotates, and we follow a boulder as it careens down the hillside toward Gal and his settled life.
The boulder is a harbinger—there’s danger coming, trouble as relentless and unforgiving as any force of nature, and it comes in the form of Don Logan, played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley in a performance so full of barely suppressed and unpredictable rage that it neatly smothers any memory the viewer may still retain of his performance as the saintly Gandhi.
Don Logan wants Gal to come back to dreary, rainy England, which Gal remembers as “…a dump. Don’t make me laugh. Grey, grimy, sooty… No thanks, not for me.” He’s spent nine years in jail and wants only to live the good life, dancing under the Spanish stars with Deedee, hunting with Enrique, and listening to Aitch’s improbable tales. Don is hiring for a high-end burglary and needs Gal to round out the crew helmed by Teddy Bass (Ian McShane at his shark-like best).
The movie was directed by Jonathan Glazer, who had come off award-winning videos for groups like Blur and Massive Attack and advertisements for Guinness (and went back to them—he’s only had one other film between Sexy Beast and a film coming out this year). Glazer knows how to create momentum and uses music (especially in the great opening sequence featuring The Stranglers), noise, and light to great effect.
His work on the videos definitely prefigure his work here—even the most prosaic scenes have a slick surface and the movie breaks out into dreamy, stylized sequences—Gal and Deedee float in the night sky while Dean Martin croons “Sway,” a terrifying were-rabbit menaces Gal with a machine gun. How those sequences go over is the key to how the viewer receives the film—if you’re with Glazer when the rabbit pulls a gun, you’re probably ready for anything he’ll throw at you.
For all the slick dynamism of its look, the movie is actually driven by the performances. Kingsley holds the film (and the audience) hostage, sucker-punching Gal when he refuses to give in to Don’s demand that he return to England for the job, talking to himself and rearing up into a terrifying rage when he doesn’t get his way. Winstone’s Gal is the heart of the film, a mensch who spars gently with Enrique and suffers insults and violence from Don and Teddy and wishes only to get back to his villa, his friends and his love, Deedee.
McShane, Amanda Redman as Deedee, Cavan Kendall in his last role as Gal’s friend Aitch, all stand out in their supporting parts, sketching their characters in with small strokes and feints. Kingsley finds a way to be both terrifying and funny–spinning out wild stories for a Spanish airline official, managing to offend even himself during one of his scatologically psychotic monologues, telling a beaten and shattered Gal, “Talk to me, I’m here for you.”
Don has come to the villa with an even darker agenda than making Gal’s life miserable, and after events with the four friends and Kingsley reach a bloody crescendo, Gal returns to rain-drenched England for the heist, which screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto have contrived to take place underwater. The rest of the film is suffused with tension about exactly what happened in Spain and whether Gal is going to make it home alive. Glazer said he wanted the robbery to be “a detour… And that was key. It’s very hard to have a film about a heist and avoid making a heist movie.”
The result is a film that’s about two men at odds; men whose way of being is so different they’re on an inevitable collision course. Ben Kingsley told an interviewer that Sexy Beast “is not a gangster film. It’s as much a gangster film as Othello is a film about soldiers; it’s about jealousy and envy.” Glazer has said he mostly sees Sexy Beast as a fledgling effort, more notable for its mistakes than its achievement, but it won 23 awards at film festivals and Kingsley was nominated for an Oscar and the film itself for a BAFTA for best picture. Legions of film fans regard it as a classic.
Dennis Tafoya is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park, and numerous short stories appearing in collections such as Philadelphia Noir from Akashic Books. His work has been nominated for two Spinetingler awards and his novels have been optioned for film. His third novel, The Poor Boy’s Game, is due from St. Martin’s Press in 2013.
Read all of Dennis Tafoya’s posts on Criminal Element.