Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Review of Sexy Beast (2000)

Jonathan Glazer's "Sexy Beast" opens disarmingly as Ray Winstone's retired gangster Gary "Gal" Dove suns himself by his swimming pool in Spain, lamenting on the good life he has, before a boulder tumbles down a cliff, sails over his head and lands in the pool. Gary seems to look upon the fact that he's not dead as a further example of his extraordinary luck. These early scenes are important because they do two crucial things; they accurately set up Gary's character as someone living a life of luxury, and they also reinforce the off-kilter, weird tone that Glazer sticks with throughout. Cliché though it may be to say it, there can't be many gangsters film like this. It's one of a kind.

After this opening, we come to know a little bit more about Gal. He's living the high-life with his wife, DeeDee (Amanda Redman), herself a retired porn-star, and his friend Aitch (Cavan Kendall), and Aitch's wife Jackie (Julianne White). They are all happily married, and we discover what became one of my favourite aspects of the film; that the women in the film aren't the usual one-dimensional, mute, gangsters molls. They have their own personalities, and in a few key moments actually prove themselves to be stronger than the "hard" men they are married to. It was certainly refreshing to see DeeDee holding a shotgun (although why she holding it, and who she was aiming it at, if anyone, I will not say).

Once this idyll has been established, we find that Gal's opulent lifestyle is soon to come under threat by the imminent arrival of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley). This news scares Gal, and when Don Logan arrives we understand why. A fearsome, ferocious and foul-mouthed monster who comes very close to evil incarnate. I was reminded of Michael Gambon's turn as Albert Spica in Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover", and they seem to occupy space the same way; by insulting it, swearing at it, and spewing out sexist diatribes. A lot has been written about how Kingsley is the last person you can see nailing this kind of role, yet the proof is there on screen; his presence is genuinely unsettling. He's also, crucially, not a man you can say "no" to, although that doesn't stop Gal when Don keeps asking him to come out of retirement for one last job.

Ah, you're thinking, this is one of those films where there is a "one last job", which will invariably go wrong, resulting perhaps in a shoot-out and a late in the day revelation or two. You're wrong. Admittedly it does, indeed, feature a retired gangster pulling one last job. But the film maybe spends 15 minutes on the minutiae of it, and doesn't seem to care about it too much, aside from what it can tell us about the characters. Or, namely Winstone's character. The only downside to Kingsley's performance is that it's the kind of turn that steals a film, when for me by far the most affecting character and performance is Gal himself. I was surprised at how invested I became in his fate by the end of the film. Again, I think this is because the film dodges clichés so mercilessly. Gal has a heart, and he's a genuinely loving person, displayed in his relationship with pool-boy Enrique (Álvaro Monje) and also his wife. He's a million miles removed from the dominating patriarch we expect from this kind of material. I grew very fond of him.

Glazer's direction also vastly helps the film. Coming from a background in commercials and music videos at the time, this is a heavily stylized film, and oddly beautiful. Using a 2.35:1 aspect ratio to spacious effect, the film disarms us with an inventive use of symmetry, space, and character placing. It's also a very, very sunny film, and even the scenes shot at night seem more brightly lit than the average gangster film (bar a few exceptions when Gal goes to do his job, and deals with Logan). It's a film that seems weirdly aware of itself, and the quixotic direction exacerbates the sense that things are not right, not what we've come to expect from this kind of thing. The dialogue, too, plays a part in this, with the kind of amusing and offbeat utterings such as "You're lovable. Big lovable bloke. Lovable lump. Lovable lummox." I was reminded, weirdly enough, of Dylan Thomas's writing. That's high praise indeed. 

Ultimately, though, as I often am with films, I was left with a remarkable attachment to the characters. How Glazer takes the usual composites of a run-of-the-mill gangster film and turns them into something weird, original, funny and with a palpable love for the Gal, DeeDee and the like is like watching a magician run a variation on a card-trick that you think you've seen before, only to realise that you haven't, and then be blown away. 

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