Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto
With Ray Winstone, Amanda Redman, Ben Kingsley, Cavan Kendall, Julianne White, and Ian McShane.
Most crime films owe a debt to Victorian melodramas. The past plays a big role. As characters lose control of events, the past becomes the reference point for when things made sense. Memory is then an active character, stalking or mocking the protagonist. And if the present smells of roses, it's illusory, because the past is forever in the wings. Earlier misdeeds are never forgotten.
In Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer's debut feature, the past holds different meanings for the two main characters. For retired midlevel crook Gal (Ray Winstone), the past is something to escape. He lived in dreary, rainy London, pulling off heists arranged by other, more powerful men, while his wife Dee Dee (Amanda Redman) worked as a porn star. Now retired from the criminal life and living an easy if slothful existence in coastal Spain, he's the one that got away--the crook who didn't wind up dead or in prison. But the past is still stalking him--he doesn't know it yet. For Gal's nemesis, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), the past is never past--he recalls old jobs, relationships, and sexual encounters in painstaking detail, as if they'd just happened.
The past stalks the crime film genre too: little has changed over the years, as plots are laid out before an audience increasingly well versed in connecting the dots. Perhaps the last great crime film was John Boorman's Point Blank, which was released in 1967. The story was fairly straightforward, but it was told compellingly, playing with our sense of time. Lee Marvin is Walker, an angry ex-con who has been betrayed by his wife and best friend and cheated out of the heist money that landed him in prison. With pathological single-mindedness, Walker pursues everyone who double-crossed him, and the attempt to recover his loot becomes increasingly absurd. Boorman's frenzied, shifting narrative mirrors Walker's driven, highly subjective state of mind. As the story progresses, people advise Walker to let go of the past, but that's beyond him--the past is all he has left. The present becomes an increasingly narrow series of choices fraught with chaos and danger.
Sexy Beast, while a fine piece of entertainment, demonstrates how little the genre has progressed in nearly 35 years. Both Sexy Beast and Point Blank have central characters with a grim sense of determination--they are maniacally unstoppable, though Logan, Walker's counterpart in Sexy Beast, is played by Kingsley as more of a ramrod-straight psychotic. Viewers end up sharing an uneasy alliance with Walker, but Logan is completely unsympathetic. (In several dream and fantasy sequences, Logan is depicted as a Mephistophelian force who even in death cannot be subdued.) With his tightly erect posture, shaved head, and scruffy beard, Kingsley's amoral character has been likened to a walking cock by some critics. But he's more dildo than phallus; he's hammy in the extreme. The performance is too calculated--like a snake, he's waiting to strike.
Both films are also darkly comic, though Point Blank is more socially pungent, offering a darkly scathing indictment of corporate America, where crooks are indistinguishable from so-called legitimate businessmen. Sexy Beast's main chuckles come from Logan's endlessly resourceful expression of his rage and inner turmoil. Fundamentally incapable of getting along with anyone, he is reminiscent of a Warner Brothers cartoon villain in his unchecked hubris (think of the Tasmanian Devil or Yosemite Sam). In the hands of a skilled actor like Kingsley this makes for good theater; the downside is that we never feel that Glazer and writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto have created a believable character with any human scale.
Winstone's performance as Gal is untypically restrained, especially when compared to his recent work in Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth, the film he's best known for in the States. Languorously flopping around the pool at his villa most days with Dee Dee and another couple, Aitch (the late Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White), he leads a sort of workingman's notion of idyllic retirement. As the film opens, Gal's slice of utopia almost comes crashing down on him--literally--when a massive boulder rolls down a hill and smashes into his pool. With no time to react, Gal looks on in sweaty slackjawed disbelief. In hindsight this incident is revealed to be a heavy-handed literary device that portends the dreaded arrival of Logan. But on a purely visual level it's a pretty good sight gag bordering on the surreal.
Purportedly a heist film--we know almost immediately that the story is headed in this direction--the movie surprisingly has most of its dramatic tension in the first half, during the scenes between Gal and Logan. After Aitch haltingly admits to Gal that Logan will be arriving shortly from London, it's apparent from the many sidelong glances exchanged by the two couples that extracting the boulder from the pool will be a cakewalk compared to getting rid of Logan. Gal forcefully asserts that he will flat out refuse Logan's offer to go back to London to work one more job, but of course there would be no real story without his capitulation.
In the London portions of the film Glazer tips his hand to just how little he's added to the crime film formula. What had been dramatized in a creatively insightful way in Point Blank--that corruption runs vigorously all the way up the corporate tree and bears stinky fruit--is by now a tired, shopworn cliche. Maybe that's why Glazer gives short shrift to the fact that Teddy (played with chilling menace by Ian McShane)--the brains behind the job for which Logan tries to recruit Gal--is working for the CFO of the security deposit company they're planning to rob. It's also interesting how the heist itself is pared down to just several minutes, as if Glazer's figured out that we've seen every imaginable variation on the genre, including the last big job, the unholy alliance of the corporate and criminal worlds, and the intricacies of a tip-top robbery. But aside from his visual flair and gallows humor, he's still subtracted much more than he's added.
In the last year or so, there's been a flurry of crime films produced in England. Fifteen or 20 movies may not seem like a lot when compared to the number of crime films produced in the United States, but it's amazingly high considering that England makes only about 200 films annually. It's not hard to divine the thought processes that go into determining which British films end up being exported to our shores. A movie like Shakespeare in Love, for example, had a strong commercial cachet with its marquee stars and slick production--and it was made with the obvious intent of bringing it over here. Smaller, more personal works might make a modest profit while cruising the art-house circuit in the hopes of becoming sleeper hits, though that's, of course, a gamble. It didn't happen for Nil by Mouth, but Sexy Beast has been playing since the beginning of the summer, albeit in limited distribution.
In December, the Music Box will be showing Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders, which, like Point Blank, is one of the last great crime films, daring to reimagine the genre by reworking its various elements into something that's both thought provoking and highly entertaining. It's too much to ask that every foray into a well-worn genre yield something new and innovative, and perhaps we should be grateful for modest pleasures like Sexy Beast, which are at least competent in achieving their limited goals. Yet hidden among those recent British crime films may be one that resonates as fresh and exciting. If so, here's hoping that it eventually makes it over here. In the meantime, Band of Outsiders will do just fine.