Sexy Beast (2000)
Written Louis Mellis & David Scinto
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer has been working in the performing arts for over thirty years, starting as a theatrical director and building a reputation for himself in the world of music videos through the 1990s. He was responsible for some iconic Radiohead, Blur, and Jamiroquai videos, which displayed his creativity and ability to build powerful moods through images and music. Glazer also directed some brilliant advertisements, with his Levis ads being some of my favorites. So before he had settled on a feature film debut, those who were aware of Glazer’s talents knew he was going to make incredible movies. That debut ended up being 2000’s Sexy Beast.
Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) is a retired English criminal living happily in Spain with his wife, DeeDee. They have been joined by friends Aitch and his wife, Jackie. Every day is spent lounging by the pool, eating at fantastic restaurants, and drinking wine as they joke about the old days. It all comes crashing down when Jackie receives a call from Don Logan (Benjamin Kingsley), a criminal associate and cold sociopath they thought was a memory. Don shows up demanding Gal take a job being offered by crime lord Teddy Bass (Ian McShane). Gal doesn’t want to go back to that life and wants to be left alone, but Don’s insistence and eventual violence are pushing him into giving in.
Sexy Beast is a gorgeous mood piece. The characters are incredibly well-written, but what makes the film are the stylistic flourishes Glazer adds on. The entire movie, despite some intense and violent moments, is overflowing with passion and love. Gal is whole-heartedly devoted to DeeDee, a fact that Don Logan knows and attempts to undermine by digging up sordid details of DeeDee’s past. She has already shared these with Gal, and his pain is less about the besmirching of his honor but knowing how much it must hurt for DeeDee to be reminded of regrettable choices.
Before we see Don Logan on screen, we feel his presence. The movie opens with an iconic scene of a boulder that nearly kills Gal and falls into the swimming pool behind the house. Later, Gal has a dream about a monstrous anthropomorphic rabbit coming to gun him down. These are all portents of something terrible on a direct path to ruin the idyll that Gal and his friends have created. When Kingsley shows up as Don on the screen, we immediately understand the characters’ gloom.
Don is this angry, little dog that just won’t let go. He tries to engage in social niceties, but it’s clear he’s disinterested in it all. He wants to make sure he dominates the space and that people do as he says. Don doesn’t show emotions; he assumes behaviors he’s observed in people but delivers them awkwardly. One minute, Don pretends to want to know what you’ve been up to, and in a hairpin second, he switches to not giving a shit and getting down to business. A compliment can transition to a ribald joke about your wife moments later.
I’m not such a great fan of Kingsley. He can be excellent in the right roles, but more often than not, I think he picks terrible projects, and it ends up being embarrassing. Here we get to see a side of the actor not glimpsed often. Gone is the fatherly gentleness of Gandhi, and in its place is a vicious pit-bull of a human being. It becomes evident that the story cannot end in anything but violence when such a person is present. Gal is steadfast that he won’t do the job, and Don cannot handle this fact. The madman teeters between angrily accepting the decision to physically strike Gal to the floor when he doesn’t comply.
Jonathan Glazer picked a fascinating film to begin with, the most accessible film in his very selective film directing career. When you look at his later two features, Birth and Under the Skin, they are very different in aesthetics, themes, and tone. Unlike his contemporaries, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, Glazer is a more versatile filmmaker. You might not always know a movie is a Glazer work because he is malleable without losing his insistence on smart stories and striking visuals.