Saturday, November 19, 2011

Overlooked Gems #14: Sexy Beast

Grade: 78 (B+)

There’s a layer of latent homoeroticism at the surface of many gangster movies. The idea of a bunch of tough guys acting tough, talking tough, and staring angrily at each other is often inherently homoerotic. Add that to the fact that many professional criminals in the films are either virulent homophobes or misogynists and it’s easy to suggest that there’s something repressed among these guys. Whether these come from smart filmmakers (Reservoir Dogs, Once Upon a Time in America) or incompetent ones (The Boondock Saints), the subtext is there, whether or not it’s intentional. In the 2001 British gangster film Sexy Beast, director Jonathan Glazer turns the subtext on so high that it’s shocking no one kisses each other.

Gal (Ray Winstone) is a retired English gangster. He’s served time in prison, but that’s in the past. He lives with his former porn-star wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman) in a Spanish villa near a old friends Aiche and Jackie (Cavan Kendall and Julianne White). Gal is living it up, relaxing by the pool in the hot sun. He doesn’t need the “one last job”, and he doesn’t miss the life. He’s got it made. But there’s a man he didn’t count on: Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a former associate whose very name causes a frightened silence at the dinner table. Don wants Gal to take part in a complicated heist back at home. Gal doesn’t want any part of it, but Don isn’t one to take no for answer, and he’s not leaving until he gets the answer he wants.

Sexy Beast opens with a tan, oiled up Winstone relaxing by the pool in nothing but a Speedo. The song “Peaches” by the Stranglers, a song about checking girls out at the beach, blares in the background. It’s pretty clear that sex is an important part of the movie right away. That Gal has a big ol’ gut from time away from home doesn’t matter: this man has attained something no one in the movies can. He loves his wife and he loves his new life, and that’s an attractive thought…so attractive that Don goes out of his way to get Gal for the job when he could find plenty of capable men back in London. It doesn’t matter that Gal isn’t interested in the job or in Don (he hates him). Don gets what Don wants.

Sexy Beast’s has two of the best against-type casting decisions of the 2000s: Winstone, a large, imposing actor, was best known at the time for playing vicious working-class Englishmen in Nil by Mouth and The War Zone; he’s now known as Jack Nicholson’s casually homicidal right-hand man in The Departed. In Sexy Beast, Winstone’s size makes him less intimidating. He’s grown fat and comfortable, and his time outside London has softened him.

Kingsley, a small, lean man most famous for playing Gandhi, is the decidedly nasty Don, a man who makes up for what he lacks in size in cold, controlled movements and outright viciousness. This man has had to fight hard to make it where he is, and he did it by being a scarier alpha-male than any of the bigger guys around him. Kingsley reportedly based the character on his cruel grandmother, and there’s an animal-like ferocity to his character (he urinates all over Gal’s bathroom as if he’s marking his territory). That Kingsley chose his grandmother as a basis may suggest something strangely feminine to the character as well.

There’s a lot of dry humor in the way Don badgers Gal into doing the job; in a typically hilarious exchange, Gal carefully says “I must turn this opportunity down”. Don replies “No, you must turn this opportunity ‘yes’!”, and he doesn’t stop there. Don believes Gal has “gone soft”, and it’s clear he wants Gal way more than he should. He has planned this job for months, and now, only a few days before it begins, he demands Gal join him.

If Don’s questionable devotion to Gal didn’t make things clear, his sex-talk ought to get it right out in the open: Don slept with Jackie years ago, and he pursues her right in front of her husband, Aiche. But something’s not quite right: he claims that Jackie “tried to pet a finger up my bum”. Jackie’s fear of Don already makes the mutual agreement on the nature of this affair questionable, and Don saying this out of the blue is even weirder. Don also criticizes (and seems somewhat fearful of) Gal’s former porn star wife. Even better: when Don gets kicked off a flight, he justifies to the air marshals that a Spanish man tried to have his way with him a few hours ago. Don doesn’t comment on this, but he’s telling us everything, and Kingsley plays every scene perfectly. It’s his finest performance, one that should have won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (he lost to Jim Broadbent for Iris).

Director Jonathan Glazer’s music-video past sometimes shines through in distracting dream sequences, and while the third act works well enough (and bolsters the homoeroticism argument in a scene in a few choice scenes), the film never recaptures the glory of the slow-burning second act. But for the most part, Sexy Beast is an assured debut from the oddly non-prolific Glazer, a hilarious, witty gangster riff that knows there’s something fishy about the big talkers.

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