Sexy Beast (2000)

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*. The first time I saw this movie I was underwhelmed, and I think I know why.
*. When it came out the reviewers were all about Ben Kingsley’s performance as Don Logan, which made sense as he had the most dramatic, attention-grabbing part in the film and was the only star. But the movie really isn’t about Don Logan, and the things I like most about it on re-viewings don’t involve him.
*. Nevertheless, people still rave about Kingsley’s “mad dog” portrayal of Don Logan. He’s good, but I don’t find him as threatening a character as most people do. I couldn’t figure out why Gal and Aitch felt so intimidated by him. Nor did I understand why it was such a big deal that he had fucked Jackie. Was this news? Would Aitch really find it that upsetting? Gal’s Deedee was a porn star and they both seem to be fine with that.

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*. One of the things he’s got going against him is that he’s really just a middle-aged kid. On the DVD commentary Kingsley calls him an “angry little boy,” and that’s just how he behaves. He even looks like a twelve-year-old wearing his first set of good clothes that he’s now grown out of. It’s a part he knowingly adopts, as when he complains of being sexually assaulted and slips into a childish voice (complaining that the attendant touched his “front bottom”).
*. It’s just hard to take Don seriously when everybody else seems so much more grown-up then he is. Even in the business of getting a girlfriend he seems stuck in his laddish days. Is the fact that he doesn’t have a girlfriend his real problem?
*. Or is he gay? Heaven knows gangster films have a long, storied history of this kind of ambiguity, rising out of the conflict between the male bonding among gang members and the complications introduced by a moll. Don seems quite upset at Jackie having had the temerity to stick her finger in his bum. Or is that just a story he made up to shock Gal? And isn’t “Gal” a significant nickname?
*. He also attacks Gal in bed, then later confesses he loves him, even reflecting on how “gorgeous” Gal used to be and how he used to have “a great body, a great physique.” This isn’t quite stepping over the line for a gangster film, but it’s balancing on one.

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*. Then there’s the matter of how isolated Don is. He’s often shown being abandoned by his “friends,” and like all such people he feels this. There is no despair like abandonment. Kingsley: “Nobody cares for Don, he’s a completely unloved man.” At the end he will call out to Gal, Jackie, and Aitch (but not Deedee, who he considers to be a whore and the great betrayer), and be rejected by all of them. So how threatening is he, a man with no friends? Even Teddy Bass makes it very clear to Gal that he doesn’t give a single fuck about Don’s disappearance. And this is not because stone dead hath no fellow but because Don never did have any.
*. A final reason Don fails in the threat department is that he holds nothing in reserve. Everything about him is bubbling on the surface, like that vein on his temple that looks like it could burst at any second. People like that are loose cannons, but they’re a known quantity. Compare Teddy, who is impossible to read and is a far scarier guy because of it.
*. Of course Teddy isn’t upset Don is gone. Why would he be? What is Don’s function anyway? Just to be a messenger boy to summon Gal? That’s something, but the bottom line is that he’s just too dangerous and immature to be given any important responsibility.
*. Instead of Don Logan, what I liked the most were the scenes of small-group dynamics between the ex-pats, and all of the play-acting that goes on between Gal and Teddy. I also like the photography and art direction. This is a really good-looking movie, even if one suspects at times that logic has been sacrificed on that altar.

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*. For example, the heist itself is interesting visually, but in terms of the story it’s a stretch. Does it make sense that after finding out that one of the driving forces behind the operation, someone who had been working on the plan for months, has gone missing just a day before everything is supposed to go down, they still go through with it? That’s crazy.
*. Also: How are we to believe that drilling into the vault and flooding it didn’t send off all kinds of alarms for a “modern fortress” boasting “one of the most elaborate security systems in Europe”? They were drilling down there for hours! Or you could take Roger Ebert’s wondering why they didn’t just drain the pool in the first place and then drill through, thus obviating the use of all the special underwater gear. Either way, the logistics of the heist are absurd.
*. The most common explanation I’ve heard for the awkward business of them breaking into the vault is that the water (a) muffles the noise of the drilling; and/or (b) in some way (don’t ask how) neutralizes the alarm system. And I think maybe audiences would have bought some of this if either excuse had been offered. All they had to do was include a throwaway line in response to Gal asking why they don’t just empty the pool. But the script doesn’t even bother to address the matter, which leaves a major plot point floating up in the air.
*. It’s only 89 minutes but feels longer. Which is both good and bad. On the one hand, there always seems to be more going on than you think. On the other, the structure strikes me as clunky.
*. From the opening the set-up is pretty obvious, even tired. The retired gangster who has settled into a comfortable domestic bourgeois life gets dragged back into the game. We’ve been here before, and we expect more of a twist on the familiar story. There is one, but it’s not terribly interesting.
*. Even the postmodern (or post-Tarantino) vocabulary of the gangster film now seems overripe. The retro soundtrack, the sunglasses, the inane and obscene dialogue, even the cooler-than-thou editing and filming. Notice how the freeze frame for the title card shows just a hint of Winstone’s ball sack peeking out from under those speedos. You should notice, because they obviously want you to.
*. Glazer thought he was making a simple story about the redemptive power of love. I’m not sure that’s what he got. The female characters DeeDee and Jackie aren’t very fleshed out. As I already noted, Jackie’s importance to Don and Aitch is left totally unexplained. Does Jackie have more than a half dozen lines even? There’s not much given to either of the ladies, though I do like how they appear to be a bit older (Amanda Redman was 42), or at least age-appropriate for their parts. The Spanish sun will do that to you.
*. Speaking of that Spanish sun, that opening shot always makes me cringe. You can practically see the melanomas metastasizing on Ray Winstone’s freckled skin as he sizzles by the pool. His cigarettes are healthier.

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*. But it’s not a movie that’s about bodies so much as faces. It’s mostly told through close-ups, which can be overwhelming. What allows it to work here is that aside from Don (and really only once with him), the faces are quiet. We can see the gears working behind them: calculating the odds, preparing a face to meet the other false faces they’re surrounded by. When the faces are doing so much work, as opposed to the dialogue, it’s nice to get a good look at them.
*. Producer Jeremy Thomas is, I think, closer to the mark than Glazer when he describes the story as a kind of fairy tale: Once upon a time there was the happiest man in the world and the gods sent him the unhappiest man in the world as a sort of nemesis. It’s a film about states of mind, and in particular loneliness.
*. I think it all makes for a decent heist flick, with a good script well performed, but there’s just not enough spin on the old concept to take it up that extra notch and I felt it struck a few too many artificial notes (the underwater heist, the man-rabbit). Nevertheless there’s something about it that keeps growing on me so in another few years I may have to revise my opinion upward.

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