October 13, 2015

Sexy Beast (2000)

Gal (Ray Winstone) is a retired safecracker living in a villa in Spain with his wife Dee Dee (Amanda Redman). He has firmly left his criminal past behind him, that is until he is visited by a sociopathic former associate Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) who has come with one final job offer from gangland mastermind Teddy Bass (Ian McShane).

Sexy Beast is a British crime film directed by Jonathan Glazer. It was the feature film debut for Glazer, who had established his career making stylish music videos for pop groups including Massive Attack and Radiohead. It's a short, sharp, quite nasty little comedy-drama that uses its ostensible British criminal setting to actually tell the story of the worst house guest imaginable.

There is one particular stroke of genius in the making of this film, and that's its casting. Glazer deliberately casts against type with not one but both of the film's lead roles. Ray Winstone, widely cast as hard-edged, violent types since 1977's Scum, plays Gal as a weak-willed and relatively broken man. We never learn what events drove him out of the criminal fraternity, but he seems remarkably frightened of going back. Winstone gives his character a slightly panicky quality that I haven't seen him give before.

If Winstone is a surprise, then Ben Kingsley must be a revelation. He is an award-winning actor - one who received a knighthood for his services to the performing arts - and remains best known for roles in Gandhi and Schindler's List. Here he plays Don Logan as a genuinely frightening sociopath. He's blunt, argumentative and belligerent. He's also incredibly violent. There isn't a scene in the film where his character isn't coiled up like a compressed spring, ready to explode out at the slightest provocation. It's a performance that was honoured with numerous award nominations and more than a few wins - all of them well deserved. In a career filled with impressive performances, this really is one of Kingsley's best.

The bulk of Sexy Beast is a strange experience, as Gal stumbles around trying to convince Don he's not going to join the heist and Don continues to demand that Gal will do as he's told. On many levels it's absolutely hilarious, but at the same time it shifts from uncomfortable to terrifying.

In the film's third act, events shift from Spain to London as a reluctant Gal joins in on Teddy Bass' planned heist. In some respects it is an odd shift for the film, and almost feels like the start of a completely different movie. It benefits, however, from a wonderfully oily performance by Ian McShane as Bass. If Don Logan is a volatile powder keg waiting to go off, then Bass is a carefully aimed shotgun. Both men are unsettling to watch, but for quite different reasons.

Sitting just behind these characters in the film's focus is Amanda Redman as Gal's wife Dee Dee. She is not in the film that much, but when she is there she demonstrates a strength and a power quite beyond what one would normally see in this kind of film. When Don's tirades and outbursts become too extreme, it's not Gal but Dee Dee who chooses to act. She's just one more surprising character in a film of surprises.

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