It all started on a rainy afternoon. I had come home from university to see my family in North Yorkshire, and my Mum had recently been enthusiastically recording documentaries, films, and TV series for us to watch together. One such film was Jonathan Glazer’s British gangster pastiche Sexy Beast, released in 2001 to moderate box office success. Despite Ben Kingsley’s Oscar nomination for his part, it was a film that simply hadn’t crossed my radar before. While the idea of enjoying watching something with the word “Sexy” in its title with your mother may inspire breathy gasps aplenty from the readers, this film defies expectations about a whole range of themes from the get go.
For one, the cast list and the plot sent me down a certain rabbit hole in terms of what I expected. The set up is like something you might watch on a Sunday afternoon on Movies4Men with your granddad. It centres around a retired gangster (Ray Winstone) living in sunny Spain; he is called by old guard enforcer Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) to take part in a high-stakes bank vault heist back in London. At the time, Winstone was known for his monosyllabic ‘hard man’ shtick, gaining popularity and acclaim for roles such as the alcoholic abuser and bully in Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, and convict Carlin in Scum who serves as a critique of the British prison’s system failure to rehabilitate as he slowly turns to maniacal violence.
Sexy Beast turns these stereotypes on a dime quickly. The opening sequence combines the sun-speckled imagery of the Spanish countryside with its rolling hills, blue oceans, and alabaster white villas; a proverbially sexy soundtrack oozes through the atmosphere as the film introduces the audience to the almost transcendental adoration Winstone’s character Nel and his wife Dee-Dee have for one another. Nel and Dee-Dee glow in a pale blue hue as they float through the sky, the beautiful Spanish coast serving as a backdrop to their romance as Henry Mancini’s “Lujon” ties it all together, its swelling strings oozing through the audience’s ears like hot oil. Glazer creates that feeling of romance and the true, unspeakable ecstasy one can feel when with the person they love.
After this initial sequence the tone of the action radically shifts, plunging our protagonists and thereby the audience into a state of catatonia. It is revealed by Gal and Dee-Dee’s friends Aitch and Jackie—who have also left behind the world of gangsterdom for the Spanish coast—that a notorious mob man by the name of Don Logan is on his way to Spain to convince Gal to do one last big job. The group’s reaction to the news over the dinner table strikes fear into our hearts; they look thoroughly frightened, as though they are already counting down the days to the end of their happiness. We have heard hide nor tail of Don so far in this film, and yet their reaction and the change in tone behoves us to be biting our nails in anticipation. Don’s arrival is represented as a force of omnipotence; he is foreshadowed in the world and atmosphere around our characters as a boulder crashing down on to Gal and Dee-Dee’s villa, a dangerous splash of fat and fire from the patio grill, and a psychotic and murderous rabbit haunting Gal’s dreams.
Don’s reputation precedes him as he arrives in Spain to the sound of a harsh and jarring drum beat, the audience at first seeing only the back of his head, his horror still hidden to us. Don arrives and Ben Kingsley’s performance instantly stands out. He has a manner of talking and walking like an automatic machine gun, rattling out profanities and insults by the clip load. Don tortures Gal: humiliating him, grinding him down, insulting his wife and his relationship with her in order to get him to do the job. It is here that the theme of inner psychological torment and its association with Gal and Don’s lives of crime becomes most apparent. It’s in this battle of wits and willpower that the soul of the film is revealed: Don, the brazen and broken sociopath, writhing, spitting, and punching his way to get what he wants. He embodies the soul-crushing life Gal has left behind, the life that put him behind bars for nine years, and the life that he must now face up to in the form of physically confronting Don
To reveal too much more of the plot would remiss of me. It is Glazer’s creative vision alone that can set alight the flames of revenge, love, trauma, and psychosis that ooze from Sexy Beast. When I finished watching it for the first time with my mum, I was gobsmacked for two reasons. One, that such an interesting and genuinely quite bizarre (in a good way) could come from the British gangster film genre—something which I associate with the wooden unfeeling features of Jason Statham. Two, that my mum could so seamlessly recommend a film I’d never seen but that I instantly loved so much. Upon its end she was grinning ear to ear at how much I enjoyed it. If you’ve never given this genre of film a go before, I urge you to give it a watch. It’s totally unique and you won’t find yourself wasting three hours like you did on that hungover Saturday with the ‘critically-acclaimed’ The Irishman.
Sexy Beast is streaming now on All 4 On Demand.
Words by George Walker
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