At the start of Sexy Beast (2001), Gal (Ray Winstone), a heavyset, middle-aged English hoodlum, is enjoying a carefree retirement on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Yes, a boulder has tumbled into his swimming pool, smashing the tilework and narrowly missing Gal himself, but this seems more like an inconvenience than an ill omen. Gal spends his time sunbathing on his patio, dining out with his friends, Aitch and Jackie (Cavan Kendall and Julianne White), and dancing in the moonlight with his beloved wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman). He’s happy to have left England (”What a toilet!”) and the dodgy life he led there.
But then one evening Aitch and Jackie arrive at Gal’s favorite restaurant with stricken looks on their faces. What could be wrong? ”Don Logan called from London.”
Who is this Don Logan, you wonder, the mere mention of whose name can reduce the stoic, affable Gal to a state of sweaty panic? The answer arrives soon enough, in the terrifying person of Ben Kingsley, whose performance jolts the movie like an exposed high-voltage wire.
It might be useful, with reference to Mr. Kingsley’s most famous role, to think of Don Logan as the opposite of Gandhi: he’s pure violence, a sociopath who radiates menace even while sitting perfectly still mouthing pleasantries. His slightest pause or twitch freezes Gal, Jackie and Aitch with terror. (Deedee turns out to be a bit tougher.) When he bursts into one of his frequent rages — reeling off profanity-laced cockney non sequiturs, absurd jokes and violent threats — you won’t know whether to burst out laughing or hide under your seat.
Don’s mission is job recruitment. A bunch of leathery London criminals led by the glowering Teddy Bass (Ian McShane, whose shiny jet-black hair sits atop his wrinkled, once-handsome face like a bad joke) is plotting an elaborate heist, which requires Gal’s skill as an underwater safecracker. Gal says no, but Don’s powers of persuasion are not to be underestimated.
Nor are the stylish, eye-popping pleasures to be found in Sexy Beast. The director, Jonathan Glazer, has come, like so many of his peers, to feature filmmaking from music videos and television commercials; he clearly has a knack for quick visual thinking and a snappy rhythmic sense.
The opening sequence of dazzling Spanish sunlight plays over the menacing growl of ”Peaches” by the Stranglers. Mr. Glazer uses music — especially Roque Baños’s paella-western score — both to italicize his images and to subvert them, but he also knows that sometimes the best sound effect is silence.
And while he clearly retains a fondness for the brevity and punch of a good 30-second television commercial, he lets his story build slowly, with the haunting indirection of a Pinter play. At times he allows his discipline — most impressive in the break-in sequence, which is like a speeded-up, deep-water version of Jules Dassin’s ”Rififi” — to slip. The dream sequences, featuring a hairy rabbit-eared biped who dwells in Gal’s unconscious, are jarring at first, but then just become puzzling.
In spite of Mr. Glazer’s cleverness and panache, Sexy Beast tells the familiar story of an aging criminal dragged against his will into the life he’s tried to escape. What makes the film an unusually satisfying genre exercise, apart from the director’s youthful brio, is the gnarled authenticity of its cast.
Mr. Kingsley’s explosive turn — which might overshadow the quieter work of Mr. Winstone, Ms. Redman and Mr. Kendall — instead heightens your sense of their characters’ vulnerable humanity. Mr. Winstone, with his bearish phsyique, his slow-moving sexual magnetism and his ability to convey tenderness and hurt at unexpected moments, might be James Gandolfini’s East End cousin. The easy rapport he finds with Ms. Redman — rarely has the romance of middle-aged married love been depicted with such quiet heat — raises the film above its limitations. Sexy Beast delivers not only sensation but also, more remarkably, feeling.
Review courtesy of The New York Times