…the film is surprisingly more stylish, imaginative, plausible, funny and tense than anything that puts the concepts British and gangster together has a right to be. (1)
It seems that everyone who has written about Sexy Beast has declared open surprise that such a stylish, intense, character and script driven film could have been made both within the much-maligned genre of the contemporary British gangster film and by a first-time director well established in the fields of advertising and music video. On closer inspection Jonathan Glazer’s often quite varied work in these last two fields does pre-empt many of the qualities found in Sexy Beast, quick-fire editing and an overpowering soundtrack thankfully not amongst them. In video clips such as Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms” (1997) and Radiohead’s “Karma Police” (1997), Glazer concentrates on the contrastive performances of actors and musicians, focusing on bodies and faces as much as the theatrics of the musician involved (such as the very studied Jimmy Little-like gestures of Nick Cave, or the weary, distracted and barely there Thom Yorke). Sexy Beast continues such an emphasis on the physicality of character – how they look, speak and move tells us a great deal – and the contrastive presence and bodies of actors. At the film’s centre is the intense duel between Ray Winstone’s bloated, out-of-condition, sun-baked Gal and Ben Kingsley’s wiry, coiled and pathologically paranoid Don Logan.
Sexy Beast is essentially a film of two (or maybe three) parts. Its structure is very conventional, at least superficially. The film opens in the searing day-time heat and balmy soft-lit nights of the Costa del Sol. The chill and menace of London arrives in the person of Logan, before Gal is forced home for that ubiquitous one last job. Thus, the film presents a clear distinction between the conventional terrains, characters and situations of the British crime film and the most likely destination for its protagonists’ retirements (if they ever get there). The film reiterates this distinction between worlds by directly contrasting the aquamarines, open sky and searing light of Spain with the cold, wet and overbearingly cramped world of London. This contrast is furthered by the film’s soundtrack which although playfully opens with the bass heavy theatrics of The Stranglers’ “Peaches” (one of the great openings in contemporary cinema), places the fluid, ‘exotic’ strains of Henry Mancini and The Gibson Brothers against the more percussive, alienating and metronomically driving electronica of UNKLE. In fact, upon the arrival of Logan the film mostly jettisons its ‘romantic’ trappings (of lighting, slow-motion and sound) as the character disrupts both the aural and visual terrain of the film. Prior to his arrival, the tenor of the film has been defined sensuously by the curves of the swimming pool and the Spanish coast, the roundness of Gal Dove, the comically failed masculinity of the hunting trips of Gal and his friend Aitch, the fluid motion of DeeDee (Gal’s partner played by Amanda Redman) caught in slow-motion as she dances towards the camera. Logan’s arrival at the airport is marked by the introduction of UNKLE’s more urgent and percussive soundtrack, more precise cutting, and the visage of Kingsley’s bullet-like head and ramrod posture. On Logan’s arrival all of the lightness falls from the film. It is only reinstated in the final repetition of the mood and physical actions of the film’s opening (with the traumas of the past well and truly buried, covered over by the curvy love-hearts which emblazon the bottom of Gal’s Hockneyesque pool).
Many commentators have suggested that the film’s great weakness lies in the searing intensity of Kingsley’s performance and the gaping abyss his character’s death leaves in the film. Rather, I would suggest that this narrative choice, and the kind of numbing of intensity it enables, is in fact the film’s great virtue, the element which most clearly marks the film’s revisionist attitude to the genre from which it harks. After Logan’s death, Gal’s never wished for journey back to London carries with it a kind of world-weary resignation, the feeling of a descent into the past world or after-life of the gangster’s once proud milieu. The mastermind of the film’s inevitable caper, Teddy Best (Ian McShane), is perhaps even more frightening than Logan (he is impassive, almost somnambulant, his brutality is joyless) and yet the film’s last third has a kind of perfunctory quality, as various actions and motifs (the execution of a central character, the partial destruction of a swimming pool/Turkish bath, the coded threatening exchanges between antagonists, the portrait of an unhinged underworld figure, a restaurant scene) are returned to in a less visceral and less felt fashion (they become the predictable rituals of underworld life that get short-circuited or transformed in the sequences in Spain). The film is full of such repetitions, symmetries and patterns. The scenes in London are much more muted and understated, interrupted by flashbacks to the killing of Logan. Even the killings in the two locales are a study in contrast; Best’s execution of his ‘business’ partner is steely in its matter-of-factness, while the killing of Logan is messy, unplanned and physically and mentally scars its perpetrators. Nevertheless, the central heist scene is extremely stylish; though ingenious and slightly silly in its execution, it also contains moments of tension and lyrical beauty (not unlike the train heist in Melville’s Un Flic ).
The key novelty of the film is that in Gal we witness a character who is trying to escape the conventions – particularly the inevitable fatalistic ending – of the British gangster genre. The film opens with Gal lying prostrate, gorging on the blaring sun of the Costa del Sol. His opening comments – “Oh yeah. Bloody ‘ell, I’m sweatin’ ‘ere. roastin’. boilin’. bakin’. swelterin'” – clearly foregrounds the passivity of both his body and character while setting up the alliterative and often strangely poetic quality of much of the film’s dialogue. This is not a tale of angst in exile, of itchy feet in retirement, Gal has found his ‘island’ in the sun and only the most traumatic of events will lure him back to the England he calls “a dump. grey, grotty, shitty. a toilet.” It is almost as if he is willing himself to go to seed to avoid being pushed back into the pumped-up masculine world of the British gangster milieu, a world and genre from which he feels well and truly superannuated. Gal embraces the horizontal, leisurely, feminised qualities of the Spanish landscape that are rudely disrupted by Logan’s uptight and upright entrance. The film betrays no longing for a lost Britain, rather it sees the return of this repressed in a string of decadent caricatures of male sexuality.
Sexy Beast has many qualities in common with Steven’s Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999) – particularly in terms of the way they respectively contrast the light of sun-soaked Spain and LA with the half-light drabness of London. Both films showcase characters and worlds that are changing or are no longer relevant (in a sense, whose time has passed). Rather than suggesting that these films represent the sunset of the British gangster film, it is more accurate to stress that they are in total continuity with the great ’70s examples of the form such as The Long Good Friday (1979), Get Carter (1971) and Performance (1970) (to which Sexy Beast makes a direct reference in its casting of James Fox). All of these films are about the end of things, the shifting parameters of the criminal milieu, and the increasing impotence of individual moral stands and values (and the corporatisation of crime and its shifting patterns of allegiance within which even an assassin can be betrayed). In contrast to these films Sexy Beast is preoccupied with a minor and much more passive and sedentary protagonist (it is often hard to believe that Gal was ever a criminal). Rather than confront the bleak and often anti-climactic end of a once familiar world (“going out like a raspberry ripple” as a character in The Long Good Friday says), Gal seems content to gorge himself on sun, beer and seafood, cashing-in on a particular British dream of paradise. Sexy Beast also differs from these other films in that it has a genuinely romantic quality, the scenes between its two pairs of lovers genuinely touching.
But the most remarkable aspects of Sexy Beast are its script and the physicality of its performances. The dialogue by Louis Mellis and David Scinto might seem, at times, as if it has been improvised but its deployment of repetition, slang and duelling wordplay (as well as well chosen obscenities) betrays a precision rare in contemporary cinema. For example, Logan’s tirades, often staged around single words like yes or no, are as frightening in their obsessiveness and exactitude as the more physical threat his lithe and well-tuned body represents. The bodies on display in Sexy Beast are an odd assortment, often deliberately contrastive, imperfect or self-consciously displayed (there is much matter-of-factly displayed flesh in this film). Although the women don’t often occupy centre stage in this film, the character of DeeDee is most remarkable in terms of her ability to occupy the gaze and the camera. There is a long-held close-up of her face, emphasising the blue veins that lie around her mouth and the implacability of her oval eyes. But rather than emphasising the physical deterioration and vulnerability of her character, these hard won marks emphasise the corporeality and toughness of her character. Like the large scar on her arm they reinforce the protective claim that she has over Gal and the world he has retreated to.
Sexy Beast is not a film without its weaknesses; the brief dream sequences involving what looks like human size feral rabbit (or is it the ‘sexy beast’ of the title?) seem to be a misjudgement (though hardly terrible). The title of the film itself seems a bit silly, as if its finally unable to leave the laddish territory of the contemporary British gangster genre fully behind (though this would seem to be a small concession to make). Nevertheless, the title does work beautifully in the film’s opening credit sequence; Ray Winstone, stumbling around, gut hanging over his brief swimming trucks, is perfectly stilled mid-lunge as the lurid pastel-pink title surprisingly and perhaps ironically introduces him as a ‘sexy beast.’
Essentially, Sexy Beast is a tonal and beautifully modulated mood piece. The perfunctory and simple nature of its plot leaving space for an examination of character, situation and place, as well as the physicality of things. Though never as melancholy, world-weary or ‘felt’ as the work of Jean-Pierre Melville (though much funnier and visceral), it shares many of the great French filmmaker’s fascinations with the gangster genre, in particular its physical milieu of place, face, fate, attitude and ritualised actions. Sexy Beast does not present characters with either Melville’s grace or purity of action, but it does present a portrait of a superficially serene world touched by brutality, gentleness and a kind of resigned acceptance. It manages to articulate a consistent and touching sensibility, and that is a considerable achievement.