Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast is a slick crime film that shines thanks to its dark humor and an exceptional performance from Ben Kingsley.
When we think of crime movies, we tend to think of the romance of the Italian Mafia, the tragedy of hood movies, or the exhilaration of heist films. There is a familiarity to these stories that makes them so rewatchable and iconic in our culture. Yet a question that is almost never answered, and one I have always asked, is “What happens next?” After the triumph of the heist, the death of the anti-hero, or the end of the criminal career, what are the lives these people lead? Of course, it’s easy to make them sad shells of themselves, as Scorsese does in The Irishman or Goodfellas, but in Sexy Beast, director Jonathan Glazer subverts our expectations and ponders an aspect of criminalism little considered: retirement.
The film starts in a beautiful Spanish villa, where a suntanned Gal (Ray Winstone) leads a life of leisure and pleasure with his wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman), his friend Aitch (Cavan Kendall), and Aitch’s wife, Rita (Julianne White). All is well until the news of Don’s (Ben Kingsley) impending arrival seizes the group. Don, a psychopathic whirlwind of curses and intimidation, is here to recruit Gal back into his past in British crime for a big heist, a past Gal has no interest in revisiting. Yet Don is unrelenting, and he is not the kind of man who takes no for an answer.
The brilliance of Sexy Beast lies in its simplicity: Don wants Gal to do a job, Gal wants nothing to do with it, and that’s it. Glazer smartly allows this format to stew, creating comedy and tension. His slick direction creates mood effortlessly, with great music, lush cinematography, and flourishes that accentuate the characterization and the story. The plan, orchestrated by Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), is complex and brilliant, with a breathtaking set piece that rivals the best in heist movie history. And the film has a brilliant twist that propels us into a harrowing third act even tenser than its first two.
What I found so impressive about the film is the characterization done through the script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto. Sexy Beast is not a complicated film. The motivations are clear and overt, yet through dialogue and contrast, we begin to understand them more deeply. Aitch, who early in the movie is shown as a loquacious bullshitter, mumbles when Don is around, showing his unease at Don’s presence. All of DeeDee’s warmth disappears around him, leaving only disdain. Rita is still, like a deer sensing a wolf lurking in the bushes, fearful of Don’s sly advances. Gal’s charm and charisma are ineffective with Don, whose gravity and intensity anchor the film and let the other characters react to his power.
The characterization is not simply done through the wonderful script and stylized direction. The key element of this movie is the acting. Ray Winstone, a British hardman known for gangster films and tough guy performances, is wonderfully cast against type as a nervous and washed-up hood. He nails the physical comedy of the character, but also shows a vulnerability in a scene where he speaks with DeeDee that perfectly illustrates the stakes of the film. It’s his softer side that makes us root for him to escape this situation and keeps us on our toes throughout the film.
But the main attraction of the film is Ben Kingsley’s outstanding performance as the vulgar Don. Talk about going against type. Gandhi, the most moral man in motion pictures, gives one of the best performances of his career as one of the most terrifying psychopaths in cinema history. Kingsley is doing so many things well here, with his awkward mannerisms, cockney slang, and vicious mouth clearly a treat for him to play with. But it’s in his many monologues and internal moments that we begin to understand how depraved and sick this man really is. He is, of course, hysterical (in a moment of anger, he shouts “No!” 24 times in a row. I love this movie), but he’s also a monster. The whole movie relies on Kingsley’s performance to create the stakes, the tension, and the humor, and he bodies it. No other actor could have pulled off this role, and it’s a marvel that this isn’t heralded not only as one of the great performances of a villain or in a gangster movie but one of the great performances of all time.
When I first saw this movie, I was not expecting such an excellent product, but I should have. With above-the-line talent like Kingsley, Winstone, and Glazer, you should always expect excellence. Yet what makes me return to the film is not simply the outstanding cast, but the ennui and emotional resonance of this otherwise rambunctious tale. This is the story of a man who has found a kind of enlightenment, who wishes for his past not to define him, and, more than anything, a guy who just wants to be left alone. This is an existential crisis of a film for both its protagonist and antagonist, and the impasse they find themselves at is more than simply a matter of a work dispute, but of a true philosophical difference. This is so much more than is to be expected from just another crime film, but that’s because this isn’t one.
Sexy Beast demands your attention, subverts your expectations, and never allows you to take your eyes off the screen. And after it’s finished, you won’t simply ponder the characters, the story, or the themes, but whether or not your work-life balance really is working for you.
Sexy Beast is now available to watch on digital and on demand.