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Sexy Beast: Smart Caper Sizzler Bulldozes its Genre-mates (and its Audience)

By C. Antonio Romero

Ray Winstone as Gal Dove in Sexy Beast

Ray Winstone as Gal Dove

Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast

Ben Kingsley as Don Logan

Ray Winstone as Gal Dove and Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast

Ray Winstone as Gal Dove and Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast

Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight

NEW YORK, 13 August 2001 - The international thriller-cinema derby for 2001 has definitely turned into a horse race. If America has its Memento and France offers With a Friend Like Harry, Britain drops out of the blue into the thick of things with director Jonathan Glazer's brutal but brilliant Sexy Beast. Masquerading as a caper flick about a retired thief getting sucked back into the game for one last crime, Beast is really a complex psychodrama of the dark power games (sexual and others) that make the underworld go around. The film doesn't pull any punches - you'll leave the theatre stunned, to say the least - but every striking image, every curse, every blow adds to the film's impact.

Gary "Gal" Dove (Ray Winstone), our retired thief and ex-convict, passes his declining days in an ever-so-posh villa on the Costa Del Sol. Retired, with a beautiful wife and a cushy lifestyle, he's found a kind of decadent domestic bliss that England can't begin to rival. As the film opens, however, ill omens portend the disruption of their decadent domestic bliss.

The opening scenes of the film let us know what we're in for - a superheated mixture of vulgarity, unexpected humor, free-floating libidinous energy and stunning brutality. Gal, basking by the pool, soaks up the sun and spews a vulgar interior monologue about England, as tanned teenage Enrique (Álvaro Monje), oozing homoerotic "pet boy" from every pore, languidly sweeps the patio, and fetching wife and former porn star DeeDee (Amanda Redman) steers his gorgeous convertible homewards. Into this idyll of decadence there plunges... a harbinger of doom (which won't be described here - it must be seen to be believed), provoking a reaction of shock and puzzlement, and a sense of ill-defined menace that hovers over the film like an un-dropped other shoe.

That second shoe finally falls when a phone call comes from London, announcing the imminent arrival of the brutal Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), Gal's boss from his earlier criminal career - whose last "no risk" job offer netted Gal a nine-year prison term. Don comes as emissary from Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), utterly amoral London underboss and force of nature, bearing an offer Gal won't be allowed to refuse: a part in looting the most secure bank vault in London. The rest of the film traces the battle of wills between Don and Gal over his participation, and the unfolding of the caper and its consequences.

The script, from first-timers Louis Mellis and David Scinto, is terrifically smart, in its own peculiar way articulate (so artfully filthy-mouthed as to make Quentin Tarantino look like an amateur), and full of psychological and insight. The general extremity - and extreme vulgarity - of everything and everyone in the film makes it clear that we are seeing humanity reduced to its purest, if not noblest, essences. (In keeping with this extremity, there are one or two scenes of ultraviolence which may rule the fim out for some readers.) The will to power, embodied most visibly by Don, but also by Teddy Bass and the whole London underworld, is clearly the dominant force in this universe; ordinary impulses - fear, lust, greed - are all shackled to this greater power, and everything, it seems, runs according to someone's plan. The film posits two frail counterforces to this drive: the pure, dumb nature one finds in the Spanish countryside (a rock, a goat, a hare); and a humane, humanizing love which has taken strange root in the relationship between the former thief and the former porn star. Gary and DeeDee cling to this love and to each other, as he tries to remain himself in the face of the forces trying to hammer him into a component in the robbery plan.

Direction, by Jonathan Glazer (in his first feature-film outing), is also spot-on. The film looks like the work of a music-video director - vertiginous camera movement, lots of quick cuts, and visuals ranging from the dazzling blue-sky tropicals of the Costa del Sol to an orgy in rainy-grey London, and from bleak dreamscapes across which the sexy beast of the title stalks Gal to a surreal underwater robbery scene where dreams and memories bleed alarmingly into the real. But, surprisingly in a movie so visually gimmicky, the performances Glazer gets from his cast are what really makes the picture. And as fortunate as he is to have two virtuoso leads in Kingsley and Winstone, he's earned his share of credit for the performances he draws out of them. It's hard to imagine that this is the work of a first-time film director principally known for commercials.

Of course, most of the buzz is over Ben Kingsley's performance. Kingsley's Don is - or at least strives to be - will-to-power made testosterone-sodden flesh (though among Kingsley's best moments is a particularly effective scene in which, his focus slipping after a psychological mis-step, Don turns his bullying upon himself). Hurtling into Gal's world like a freight train, he sets out to bend everything he meets to his will. His tag line encapsulates the vulgar, sexualized force he seeks to be: "Where there's a will - and there is a fucking will - there is a way." He will use whatever psychological weapon he must, from seduction to bullying to out-right menace, to drive Gal back to London. His every explosive utterance delivers the shock of a hammer blow between the eyebrows; in one particularly stunning scene, he repeatedly hurls not just his words but himself at Gal, to compound his force of personality with physical force.

But Winstone holds his own against Kingsley, as Gal does against Don. An accomplished actor in the UK and Cannes' 1997 Best Actor for his Nil By Mouth, Winstone delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance that runs the gamut from the extreme vulgarity and decadence of the opening scenes to some surprisingly tender moments with DeeDee, and some touch-and-go moments with Tedddy Bass. Winston's role actually demands more of him than the more conspicuous performance by Kingsley, and he deserves appropriate kudos for it.

Top notch cast, great performances, a great script and expert direction adding up to a film as gorgeous as it is smart - what more could anyone ask? Not much - which is why Sexy Beast has to rank as one of the great films of this summer season, and probably of the year. If you can handle the ultra-violence in certain scenes and the vulgarity throughout, slouch on down to your nearest arthouse theatre and take in this sizzling, stylish smash.

Four stars

C. Antonio Romero is a writer and engineer based in Silicon Valley. He is the Nouveau editor of

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