The title suggests a cheap European horror movie from the ’60s, but Sexy Beast is meant to signify anything that’s both alluring and frightening — a life of crime, say, or a malevolent acquaintance who knew you when. This slight-seeming but trim and absorbing British import deepens in your head the more you chew it over later; it’s about the friction of opposing personalities and lifestyles, it’s about the noir theme of never escaping the past, but mainly it’s about Ben Kingsley grabbing the movie in his jaws like a pit bull and gnawing till it screams.
Kingsley is Don Logan, a Cockney tough guy who wants a former associate, Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone), to come out of his sun-dappled retirement from crime (Gal lives in a Spanish villa, tanning himself by the pool) and come back for One Last Big Job. Gal is soft; Don couldn’t be harder — he’s like a cross between a bullet and a penis, a baldheaded force of nature driving his will into Gal like a hammer pounding a nail into a pillow. Kingsley’s East End Mephistopheles performance, which has gotten universal raves, is a little one-note, to be sure — but then, try to think of a memorable, iconic performance that isn’t.
Gal, given subtle flesh and blood by Winstone, is comfortable where he is. He enjoys having his lazy days by the pool, his nights going out to eat with his ex-porn-star wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman), his gangster crony Aight (the late Cavan Kendall), and Aight’s girlfriend Jenny (Julianne White). The movie, directed by Jonathan Glazer (a video veteran making his feature debut) from a tight script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, wastes hardly any time on the heist itself — an absurd underwater affair recalling Small Time Crooks — and doesn’t even bother to show us the planning for it. All of that is beside the point, and we’ve seen it before. What we haven’t seen is the tension between Gal, who says “No” to the job, and Don, who knows what to do when he hears “no”: bark until it becomes “yes.”
Glazer isn’t of the “Hey Look Ma, I’m a Director” camp; his cinematographer Ivan Bird gives us gorgeous wide compositions either full of primary colors or completely devoid of them. Visually, Glazer makes us understand how much Gal has to lose and why he was so glad to leave his past behind. The scenes set back in London are wet and depressing. Spain is full of sun and good music and good food; London is crawling with hard-drinking mobsters just above gutter level, among them a higher-up named Teddy (Ian McShane), who sets the plot in motion when he attends an orgy and finds out about a vulnerable bank next to a steam club.
The opening bit — a boulder dislodges itself from a nearby hill and lands with drenching fanfare in Gal’s pool — is a bit too obvious a metaphor, but it puts us in a mood to receive the film’s theme: that there are some things (a boulder, Don Logan) you can’t plan for, that can dash your house of cards to ruins unless you rise to the occasion. Gal has a crane remove the boulder, but Don is not so easily extracted; he appears to be the criminal will incarnate, obscenely contemptuous of anything that does not advance the storyline in his head. He tries to chip away at Gal’s wife and friends. There’s a strong suggestion he resents Gal’s easy life — “Why should I let you be happy?” — and perhaps wishes it for himself, but knows his nature won’t allow it. He wants Gal back in the mud with him.
Sexy Beast gets in and out fast — at 88 minutes, it’s a model of concision in a summer of big-budget flab — and by focusing on a small story and the few people intimately involved, it cuts to the bone far more effectively than if it were a routine thriller that centered on the heist. Every directorial flick of the wrist is there for a reason (even Gal’s surreal nightmares of a gun-wielding rabbit monster), every character serves a purpose, and every Cockney-inflected obscenity (mostly issuing from Don) makes a point — it’s almost as if Gal wanted to escape the sound and language of crime, too. Most films these days are big things that deflate afterward. Here’s a small movie that expands.