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The New Cult Canon: Sexy Beast

It should be said upfront that Ray Winstone is one scary motherfucker. Before appearing as a retired hood in Sexy Beast, he was the go-to guy for abusive louts in British kitchen-sink melodramas, appearing as a wife-beating alcoholic in Nil By Mouth and an incestuous patriarch in The War Zone. He later won a supporting part as the most trusted of Jack Nicholson's goons in The Departed, playing a man who never questions his role as chief enforcer, and who is, for all intents and purposes, a mass murderer. In other words, Winstone isn't the first guy casting agents should want playing a career criminal who's reduced to cowering meekly before the wiry, diminutive chap who played Gandhi.

In my interview with Ben Kingsley this week, he talks about "stillness" as something he's worked on in the last 25 years of acting—the confidence to do less, not more. And that's where real power comes from in performance: Not from the guy flailing about and tearing up a room, but from the one whose movements are compact, efficient, and suffused with quiet confidence. Think Marlon Brando behind his desk in The Godfather, or Anthony Hopkins standing in his cell in The Silence Of The Lambs, unblinking and with perfect posture and precise diction. As Don Logan, a fearsome gangster in Sexy Beast, Kingsley is occasionally called upon to back up his glares with brutal violence, but even then, his movements are swift and controlled, like a rattlesnake sprung from repose. He exudes such a toxic aura that, at one point, Winstone, his wife, and another couple all excuse themselves from a table on the patio and retreat into the kitchen, hoping to wait him out like a passing storm.

The hyper-masculine fireworks between Winstone and Kingsley—and later Deadwood's Ian McShane, who concedes to no one in the glowering department—are the chief reason to care about Sexy Beast, the strangest and surely the best of the post-Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels glut of British crime thrillers. Directed by first-timer Jonathan Glazer, who made a name for himself on standout videos like Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" and Radiohead's "Karma Police," the film feels a bit like a technical exercise, reworking (and occasionally just rehashing) the "one last job" scenario that's common to many heist films. And the stunt casting of Gandhi as a badass and Winstone as a sun-glazed softie is part of that exercise, too, a chance for a young filmmaker and his cast to show off their chops. It's an undeniably indulgent piece of work, but just as undeniably entertaining, too.

Opening to the unexpected strains of The Stranglers' 1977 single "Peaches"—a loping, keyboard-and-bass-driven song about ogling girls on summer beaches—Sexy Beast languishes over Winstone's Gal as his lotion-slathered frame bakes in the Spanish sun like a suckling over a spit. This is the picture of retirement: Done with the life, Gal and his wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman) reside in a hillside hacienda with a pool, where he's free to spend his afternoons tanning to a crispy brown, and his evenings filling his ever-expanding belly with calamari and cocktails.

Unlike many criminals, Gal feels no compulsion to continue rolling the dice until they inevitably come up snake eyes. One of the things I like about the first 10 minutes of Sexy Beast—and part of what separates it from other films in the crime genre—is that Gal has actually achieved the retirement that's so elusive to other movie hoodlums. It's one thing to talk about the big score that's going to put you on a beach forever, but who ever gets there? And even if a crook survives long enough to retire, can he really settle down to a life of leisure? Improbably, Gal is capable of doing just that, and this magical sequence reveals how easily he was able to leave the London underworld in the past:

The mere mention of the name "Don Logan" throws a black cloud over paradise. The mere mention of the name "Don Logan" throws a black cloud over paradise. Out dining with his cohort Aitch (Cavan Kendell) and Aitch's wife Jackie (Julianne White), Gal gets word that Don needs him on a job and is due to fly in the next morning, with the intention of staying until he gets the answer he's looking for. As with Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction, the back of Kingsley's head gets introduced first as he strides purposefully down an airport corridor; when we finally see his face, it's stony and mirthless, as calibrated to intimidate as the rat-a-tat profanities that he spits out like machine-gun bullets. He's a deeply unsavory character, and Kingsley plays him as more animal than human, a creature driven by brutish instinct, incapable of compassion or even participating in small talk. (At one point, Glazer has him urinating on the bathroom floors, as if to mark his territory.)

Sexy Beast is only 89 minutes long, but nearly an entire hour of that time is devoted to Don convincing Gal to come back to London to lead an eight-man team in pulling off an impossible bank heist. The heist itself is virtually an afterthought. Here again, Glazer and his screenwriters, Louis Mellis and David Scinto, are toying with genre conventions: Normally, convincing an ex-con to do "one last job" takes a few minutes of screen time, and the rest is devoted to planning and execution. In this case, the planning has already been done, but getting the hero involved turns into an escalating battle of wills. Gal says "no," Don says "yes," and the détente continues until Kingsley gets really insistent. But first come hilarious exchanges like these:

Gal: I am going to have to turn this opportunity down.

Don: No, you are going to have to turn this opportunity yes.


Gal: No!

Don: Yes!

Gal: No!

Don: Yes!

Gal: No!

Don: Fat cunt!

Gal: No! No! No!

Don: Yes! Yes! Yes!

And when Don fails to make any headway by sheer bull-headed insistence, he busts out the heavy rhetorical artillery, as in this electrifying confrontation the night of his arrival:

It doesn't take much squinting to find the homoerotic subtext in Sexy Beast, not when the title pops up on an unflattering freeze-frame of Winstone in a yellow Speedo. When it comes down to it, Don doesn't really need Gal for the bank job: It's already been planned out, after all, and when it finally happens, we never get the sense that Gal's expertise is of any real value. So the only conclusion is that Don needs Gal in a way that can never be expressed, and it comes out as a struggle for leverage, of one guy trying to have his way with the other. Don's desire surfaces in all sorts of places: In the bathroom, where he chides his mirror image for not putting his best foot forward; at the airport, where he contrives an unlikely story of a male flight attendant's sexual advances to explain why he got kicked off a plane; and when he tells Gal about his fling with Jackie, whom he claims tried to penetrate him with her thumb. Clearly, Don doth protest too much.

Too bad he's not around for the big finale, where a bunch of men in their skivvies break into a bank via an adjacent bathhouse. Loading the movie down with this much homoeroticism is another sly comment on the genre itself, which is usually about the tensions and bonds within a world of men, but rarely reflects on what those tensions and bonds really signify. I wouldn't argue that Sexy Beast is a profoundly accomplished movie—the last half-hour, in spite of the novel heist sequence, goes comparatively flat without Kingsley around—but it's a stark, vibrant, hugely entertaining one. And in the wave of other nasty American and British crime films that hit theaters in the '90s and early '00s, there was definitely nothing quite like it.

Next week: Sonatine

August 21: Gremlins 2: The New Batch

August 28: Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom

September 4: American Movie: The Making Of Northwestern