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British Gangster Month: Sexy Beast (2000)

Aside from the kid who helps around the villa, there was not a significant character in Sexy Beast who was under forty. If nothing else that’s impressive, especially for a film with the word ‘sexy’ in its title. Fortunately there are a number of other impressive aspects to this film. It too is a directorial debut this time from Jonathan Glazer (who most recently directed Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin) and also pays off as quite a good starting point for a director. Not amazing, but a good one.
Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone) is a safe-cracker who after some prison time has put his criminal past behind him and retired to a villa in Spain where he lives in luxury with his wife Dee-Dee (Amanda Redman) and their friends Aitch and Jackie (Cavan Kendall and Julianne White). However his former associate the manipulative sociopathic Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) arrives to recruit him for one last job. He wants Gal to participate in an elaborate bank heist organized by crime lord Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) and won’t take no for an answer. Each time Gal refutes him, Don gets even more infuriated and dangerous and it becomes increasingly apparent that Gal may not find a way around it.
Okay so we’ve all seen the retired professional called back in for one last job cliché, be it a cop, an athlete, or indeed a gangster, and while that is the set-up for the movie it’s thankfully not the focus. The focus instead seems to be on the unsettling atmosphere that permeates the situation and action. The dread that Gal may not be able to avoid returning to a world he’s been trying to keep away from. And for the first half of the film this tension really builds brought on by Don invading their serene environment. Honestly the first half feels like one of those dark and intense plays focussing on a small cast in one claustrophobic place as they interact, escalating to chaos and violence somewhere in the vein of Jez Butterworth’s Mojo. That alone could have worked as a movie but around the halfway mark we suddenly jump forward in time leaving the previous situation ambiguously resolved slowly revealing what happened there as the film progresses. It took me by surprise and worked well but in a way that also could have been one film on a whole: the ambiguous starting point with the details of how we ended up there being revealed little by little throughout. Both these types of presentation have been done and done well in film before, but I’m not convinced Sexy Beast entirely succeeded in merging the disparate styles. Especially as they’re done back to back rather than side-by-side and I think if they focused more cohesively on one of these styles of narrative (I think I’d prefer the latter as it more effectively engages the viewer in the mystery of the premise), the film might have felt less uneven.
That being said the film did manage most of its job, particularly through the performances. Winstone is fairly subdued as Gal and not really interesting, but that’s how the character is supposed to act. Just about everything he does in the movie is with reluctance, nervousness, and anxiety and his quietness in this contrasted with the characters around him, doesn’t leave him much room to emote. Luckily Ben Kingsley does enough of that for the both of them bringing to life a really terrifying character in Don Logan. The performance is brilliant, rightfully an Oscar nominee, with Kingsley making the most of his character’s psychological instability. The way he talks rapidly, minor anxious twitches and oddities make it clear something’s not right with him. And for Kingsley, the same man who won an Oscar for playing Gandhi, to so fully embody this polar opposite character really speaks to his strengths as an actor. Ian McShane is also fantastic as Teddy portraying this seemingly calm and collect man who beneath is just as dangerous as Logan. And he’s also got that super smooth voice that puts you on edge each time he speaks! The supporting cast is mostly fine with notable props going to James Fox as Harry, the banker victim of the heist, but they don’t quite have the opportunities or talent to match up to Kingsley and McShane.
The last thing I should mention is that the film has a discrepancy in tone. For the majority it gets across that it’s a dark intense drama, however the opening and closing sequences imply this was at least partially a comedy, which doesn’t at all fit with everything else we’ve seen. There are a couple scenes like the awkward silent reunion between Gal’s friends and Logan that could be interpreted as comedic, but I think generally people would agree are more unnerving. The opening features some cheesy retro music set against no action happening and showing us too much of an almost naked Winstone. Yeah it could be pointing out the irony of the film’s title which also doesn’t seem to have a lot of relevance to the plot and feel, but it’s such a strange addition of a comedic overtone that seems to come out of nowhere.
Though there are problems in the fundamental story structure of Sexy Beast, it’s certainly worthwhile for its performances and for the fact that the tension is heightened effectively in both styles. It’s interesting enough to hold your attention and keep it, and that’s very important especially for a debut feature. Just don’t go into the film on the title alone. Unless you’re titillated by middle-aged pink pot-bellies.

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