Jonathan Glazer’s SEXY BEAST [8/10]

Five minutes into Sexy Beast a massive boulder comes bouncing down a Spanish hillside, narrowly missing a startled Ray Winstone as it lands in his swimming pool. It’s a truly jawdropping opening, marking the brash entrance of a flashy, risky, new directing talent. As the man behind the Guinness ‘white horses’ advert, it’s no surprise Glazer delivers on the visuals but, crucially, he’s disciplined enough to put his talents at the service of a good script – slangy, slightly surreal, bracingly economical, brutally bare-bones.

The set-up isn’t unfamiliar: ex-gangster Gal (Winstone) enjoys an idyllic Costa del Crime retirement – until the shocking arrival of a) that boulder and b) Kingsley, a psychopathic crime boss sent by mastermind Ian MacShane to retrieve Winstone for ‘one last job’ back in London. Winstone refuses. Kingsley insists. Bloody complications ensue.

No film starring Winstone as a flashy cockney gangster can be described as totally original, but Sexy Beast comes mighty close. It’s a deliberate bit of casting – likewise James Fox, a survivor from the last good arty British gangster picture, Performance – and it’s hard to imagine anyone else so at home in the crucial central role.

But Sexy Beast is much more than a mesh of ironic references, bold images and clever-clever touches. It has an energy and a confidence all its own, with as much attention paid to the intricacies of the soundtrack, both music and effects, as to the stylised look. It’s a relentlessly funny movie, but it’s hardly a comedy – there’s real suspense, a thinly veiled threat of violence lurking just behind the gangster’s coded, Pinteresque civility, spoken words much less important than what’s left unsaid.

The nippy pacing has a downside however, with only Gal explored in any real depth, and the second half of the picture, in which the action flicks back and forth between Spain and London, dissipates the claustrophobia of the sun-drenched opening, building to an finale that’s just a little too neat.

It’s also mildly irritating that the title is never properly explained. Presumably it refers to Winstone’s character, or to a rabbit-featured humanoid creature from his nightmares, who seems to have strayed in from another film entirely. But these are minor quibbles. Sexy Beast has enough going for it to suggest Glazer is precisely the kind of kick up the arse the British film industry has been waiting for.

Neil Young
November 2000
seen 11th November 2000, Odeon West End, London
London Film Festival (press show)

UK 2000
dir : Jonathan Glazer
scr : Louis Mellis, David Scinto
cin : Ivan Bird
stars : Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Amanda Redman
88 minutes