Sexy Beast: The Past Always Comes Back
It's often hard for me to pin down what exactly is my favorite film of all time. For a variety of reasons that answer changes constantly, the least of which being that I find that having a favorite can often limit the variety of films you give a chance. But more often than not, if I had to give an answer that answer is Sexy Beast. The title of this article is not just an implication of the film's theme but in a way the perfect description of my relationship with Johnathan Glazer's brilliant directorial debut. The film in one way or another has been a consistent and constant presence in my life and in my writing since I first viewed it in a film class nearly a decade ago. The numeros papers I have written on the subject span a bevy of topics from that of its lighting to why it's my favorite film, I've annoyed friends with how much I've tried to get them to view it with me and I have long lost count of how many times I've viewed it personally. If I wanted to I could dedicate the entirety of this article to the brilliance of the film's title or the perfection of it's opening scene. Sexy Beast is far more than the stylized crime drama it often gets written off as, even if it is a film that quite literally shoves it's member in the face of the audience, at its core Sexy Beast is one of the most endearing love stories ever told in film. So break out your best banana hammock, grab a few cervezas and prepare for the wild ride that is Sexy Beast.
Perhaps the most endearing tale I can tell regarding this film is the time I lent it to my favorite college professor, whom like me is a gigantic Johnathan Glazer fan and was met with an earnest proclamation of "Oh thanks! My wife is really gonna enjoy watching this!" After having a time trying to retrieve my copy from him, I asked if his wife enjoyed it he gave me what is quite possibly my favorite review regarding Sexy Beast "She turned to me and said What the hell was even the point of that film?" which believe it or not was nearly the same sentiment of yours truly upon my first viewing. To say that at times there is tonal whiplash in Sexy Beast is like saying there's repetition in a Godflesh album. At times Sexy Beast can feel like somewhat disjointed as you jump from a scene where you have the lead character Gal bossing around his Spanish servant boy before almost getting smashed by a boulder, followed by a scene of barbecue where he and his wife Deedee quite literally float off into a dream like state while dancing together to Henry Mancini's Lujon before that scene is transitioned into a comedic hunting trip with Gal, his best friend Aitch and the servant boy. However Glazer finds a way to weave these seemingly unrelated vignettes together in a stroke of genius and the thread he uses is one of the greatest villains in film history Don Logan. It is by now a famous story that when star Ray Winstone first met Ben Kingsley at a cast party he was already so deep into the Don Logan character that he ended up ducking out of a window just to get away from him and that intensity is definitely well reflected in his on screen performance, take notes Leto. Logan is simply one of the most depraved and psychotic characters ever put to screen and as crazy as it sounds, he probably isn't even the scariest figure in this film. With that said the first several scenes are genius for their simplicity in setting up the film's variables, the impending danger of Don Logan's arrival is set up by the boulder narrowly missing Gal and smashing into his pool, the romance between Deedee and Gal is shown in the barbecue scene as is Deedee's ability to pull Gal out of a state of danger, we see the cowardice and incompetence of Aitch in the hunting scene where he attempts to kill a baby rabbit before inadvertently breaking the lever off of his rifle. I have seen criticism that the pace of the film doesn't allow for the characters to be fully fleshed out and while I can somewhat concede that point, I however would argue that while pace of the film does not lend itself to deep character study, it isn't needed as with little exception every character in Sexy Beast is definite. Sexy Beast is not meant to be a thought filled analysis of the lifelong journey of a gangster who slowly drifts away from the seedy underbelly of the London crime world, but rather a definite point in time in the life of a retired gangster and his chosen family fighting off the specter of their collective pasts returning to haunt them long after they've seemingly escaped from it by moving to the Spanish countryside. For me Sexy Beast is a character driven film and a great example of how far a person will go to protect the ones they love and how far the ones who love them are willing to go in order to in turn protect him. Even if that means destroying the great boulder of hatred that is Don Logan.
Some may accuse Sexy beast of being a film of two halves and while I can somewhat concede that the second half isn't as strong, I would argue that its second half is a necessary conclusion to the film's themes. At various times throughout the first half of the film Gal alludes to the nightmare that was his life as a thief in London's underbelly and at times I feel he's as if not more afraid of the consequences that will bring than he is of any physical violence Don Logan can cause him, if Spain is the dream, than London is most definitely the nightmare. Glazer does an exceptional job of displaying this with the garish color scheme, gone are the deep blues, bright whites and sandalwood of Spain and in their place are various shades of green and grey, pool lights are replaced with neon bar lights and even the tan for which Don Logan derides Gal for sporting is seemingly gone from his skin in place of a pale ghost like complexion. The use of horror like jump cuts and extreme close ups is another strength of Glazer's which he displays beautifully in the Chinese restaurant scene where the laughter of Gal's fellow thieves and gangsters is played off like it's a gaggle witches as he tries to reassure Deedee of his safety over the phone. Safe from who you might ask? Why none other than film's real villain, "Mr.Black Magic" Teddy Bass.
If Don Logan is a sheep in wolves clothing than Teddy is unabashedly the Big Bad Wolf, in yet another one of the film's many juxtapositions Teddy is very much the have to Don's have not, while Don is alone at home watching TV in his underwear Teddy is naked having an orgy in some posh London flat. Where Don has to be boisterous and chaotic to instill intimidation and fear, Teddy only has to give a glance with the knowledge that if you try to get one over on him he will kill you. Which leads to the question that's at the back half of the film "Where's Don?" While the perspective of the film remains with Gal, we know as an audience as much as Teddy does regarding the whereabouts of Mr. Logan, though we can definitely infer he's dead, the specter of his presence in Spain follows Gal to London and Haunts him in the form of Teddy Bass who interrogates him over Don's disappearance several times. Going as far as committing a homicide mere feet in front of Gal asking one final time "Where's Don?" then revealing he knew about his death all along. It is in this scene that we get the full brevity of who Teddy is and how far he's willing to go to get what he wants, besides coming up with an elaborate and risky scheme to rob one of England's most secure banks, a scheme that included having a sexual tryst with said bank's chairman, just to say he could, but the man is willing to kill just to get a straight answer out of Gal for the death of a man who he doesn't even care about! While Kingsley deservedly got a ton of praise for his role as Don Logan for me Ian McShane steals this movie right back and I genuinely think he should have been nominated for an award along side Kingsley. The scenes between him and Ray Winstone are some of the most tense I've seen in film and I liken them to a lion playing with his prey knowing all he needs is a single swipe to end them at anytime. While he ultimately he lets Gal go back home to his family, of course not before displaying his power to Gal one final time in an action that is somehow colder than him committing a murder in cold blood by spotting him a 'tenner' for a job well done and making Gal give him his change, I have never once felt safe for Gal in the film's ending happy as it's played off. What with a promise from Teddy to pop in to "Pay his respects" and the little fact that GAL STEALS FROM HIM by giving his wife a pair of earrings he stole from the bank, I think it truly is a case of a story having a happy ending because of where it falls. To some degree I think Glazer was aware of that fact because the final shot of the film is of Don Logan smoking a cigarette presumably in Hell after being awakened by the bunny creature who makes several appearances throughout the film.
As a debut feature goes you don't get much greater than Sexy Beast, Glazer who was one of a slew of directors making the transition from the world of music videos and commercials in the late 90's and early 2000's and he maybe the very best of that bunch. While some have compared him to the likes of Kubrick, I tend to stray away from such conversations as I feel that it is both an unfair and horrific comparison, while I wouldn't say Glazer defined his style with Sexy Beast I would say it was the beginning of some the themes that he would further explore in his other works. For as short a film as Sexy Beast it is dripping with content if you know where to look, even as someone who has watched it as many times as I, there's still at least one thing new I notice every time I give it a watch. It is extremely hard to believe that the film had the troubled post production that it did, but thankfully it came out for the better because of it. While slickly edited, Sexy Beast is not the tale of a bunch of GQ cover models teaming up to rob a casino, but rather the love between a man and his chosen family. This is my favorite film from my all time favorite director and it is a sin that nearly 25 years after its release Glazer has only directed a total of three feature films. But as they say quality over quantity and there are so very few that are of his. As of this writing Sexy Beast is streaming on Tubi, if you have an hour and a half give it a watch.