VHS Revival revisits Johnathan Glazer’s scintillating gangster romp.
The opening scene of Sexy Beast is one of great comical foreboding.
Retired safe-cracker Gal, played with quiet resolve by the wonderful Ray Winstone, is your typical Brit abroad, a red lobster baking in the Spanish heat and loving every minute of it. His dysfunctional family consists of beloved partner Dee Dee, an ex porn star with just as much reason to escape her homeland, another gangland couple with a similarly unfortunate past, and a young Spanish boy who performs chores around Gal’s villa with the adoring smile of an adulating son. In spite of the idiosyncrasies of their makeshift unit, the cast are happy in their remote, sun-drenched hideaway. Their life of casual decadence and cockney cheer is worth its weight in regret.
Gal – [Gal is sunbathing by the poolside] Oh, yeah. Bloody hell. I’m sweating in here. Roasting. Boiling. Baking. Sweltering. It’s like a sauna. Furnace. You can fry an egg on my stomach. Ohh, who wouldn’t lap this up? It’s ridiculous. Tremendous. Fantastic. Fan-dabby-dozy-tastic.
But then something very peculiar happens. It is an almost fatal moment, one delivered with the kind of offbeat comedy that underpins much of the movie’s proceedings. A giant boulder comes unglued and careens down the cliffside behind gal’s hideaway, missing him by a whisker and plummeting into the pool in front of him. Gal stands there perplexed, his miniature hand-fan still spinning as a tidal wave of water drips from his stupefied brow. For him it was a close call, the kind of good fortune that most of us only read about, but for the viewer it is a stark warning for the very real cataclysm that lies ahead.
That force of nature arrives in the form of Don, a psychotic former associate played by a an almost unrecognizable Ben Kingsley. This is the same man who once played history’s most famous pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi, and here he gives us one of the most startling creations in modern cinema, a seething miscreant whose capricious facade ricochets around the frame like a barrage of stray bullets.
Before Don even arrives, we are prepared for something quite ominous. Gal and his friend Aitch (Cavan Kendall) may have turned soft in their advancing years, but they are no pushovers, bursting with the kind of East London camaraderie that hints at more ruthless times, but with the news of Don’s impending arrival, the two undergo a quite remarkable alteration, Aitch reaching for the cigarettes with a quivering hand while alpha male Don tries to delude himself into believing that their visitor will respect his wishes and take No for an answer. The scene in which the four of them discuss this revelation over dinner is a masterclass of brooding intensity. This is a cast of considerable talent.
Gal – [On the phone with his wife, realizing it may be their last phone call] Deedee, I love you like a rose loves rainwater… like a leopard loves its partner in the jungle, like – I don’t know what like. I love yuh… I love yuh, I love yuh…
There are some surreal touches which prevent the movie from falling headlong into the mire, while juxtaposing sequences of slang-laden style and comic book romance keeps the movie firmly in the tradition of British gangster flicks of the past. Love heart smoke rings and simmering portraits of the sultry Dee Dee, played by an affectionately resolute and sometimes pitiless Amanda Redman, capture her and Don’s cartoon romance effortlessly, while dreams of a vengeful, uzi-toting wild hare – the same animal which Don and his makeshift gang previously tried to snare on the dry, open plains of rural Spain – adds to the sense of impending doom for a man who is all-too-familiar with the consequences.
When Don arrives, it is in the front passenger seat of Aitch’s car, with his wife Jackie driving, her husband reduced to the child of the equation in a symbolic predicament that has more to it than originally meets the eye. Don is silent, pensive, bursting out of his skin with rigid anticipation. He is not there to shake hands or reminisce about the past. He is there on a mission of recruitment for feared gangland boss Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), a silken viper whose gilt-edged meticulousness leaves much to the imagination. While Don stares unabashed at the cowering Jackie, Aitch tries to ease the tension with his comical nature, but his guest is a man who has no understanding of what it means to laugh. When Aitch offers to take the girls to dinner so Don and Gal can talk things through, their visitor takes offence for receiving no invitation. Having instilled the fear he was aiming for, Don claims to be joking and insists on paying for their meal, but his cold glare offers no hint of playfulness, and his generous offer is nothing more than leverage.
Don – What you think this is the wheel of fortune? You think you can make your dough and fuck off? Leave the table? Thanks Don, see you Don, off to sunny Spain now Don, fuck off Don. Lying in your pool like a fat blob laughing at me, you think I’m gonna have that? You really think I’m gonna have that, ya ponce. All right, I’ll make it easy for you. God knows you’re fucking trying. Are you gonna do the job? It’s not a difficult question, are you gonna do the job, yes or no?
Don is relentless in his pursuit of Gal, and unbending in his expectations. He has orders from men of higher stature, but he seems to revel in his task, hellbent on sabotaging his former friend’s happiness and particularly that of Aitch, whose wife he claims to have had secret relations with, a woman who he even seems to love as far as that is possible. Don is intense, manipulative, abusive – everything you would expect from a sociopath of his breed. Gal may be a hard man, but Don is a man devoid of reason who cannot be intimidated.
When Gal uses bad language to respectfully convey his reluctance to become reacquainted with his past life, Don looks through his feelings and admonishes him like a child for cursing. When gal sticks to his guns, Don has a frenzied conversation with himself in the bathroom mirror, urinating on his rug and coaxing one of a plethora of personalities out of hibernation. When Gal has the nerve to bring his guest’s desire for Jackie into the equation, Don leaves for the airport like a petulant child, only to return after a self-imposed confrontation with a flight attendant that has him detained for hours on end. During that time his anger never wanes, although he is calm enough to talk his way out of trouble with a carefully orchestrated accusation of sexual harassment, quietly heading back to Gal’s villa and exploding with the type of rage there is no coming back from.
Ultimately, Gal has no other option but to relent and take part in the heist, but he does so without Don, whose suspicious disappearance raises questions for gang overlord Teddy, a controlled psychotic who suspects foul play and seems intent on proving it. Gal is able to hold his nerve for the most part, but in spite of his relative calm, Teddy is just as ruthless and unpredictable, perhaps even more so, and it becomes apparent that staying alive may prove more difficult back on home soil as suspicions turn to half-truths and Gal’s past finally closes in on him. The finale is one of delicate tension, with fine support from a divinely sinister McShane, and while Winstone is as dependable as you would expect from a performer of his pedigree, the movie ultimately belongs to Sir Ben Kingsley, whose wildly unhinged and deeply complex performance proves beyond any doubt that his range as an actor is without limitation.