"Sexy Beast"

An underwater dream world, cackling criminals and a smart twist on the crime-movie genre add up to one of the best British films since "Trainspotting."

Published June 13, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Both electrified and haunted, a nightmare set in paradise, a lurid dream state in which strange things happen underground and underwater, "Sexy Beast" is an extraordinary and original creation. It belongs alongside "Amores Perros" and "Memento" on a shortlist of 2001's most exciting revelations, all of them movies that push the crime genre in adventurous new directions. If you've seen the trailer, you've gotten a glimpse of Ben Kingsley's memorable performance as Don Logan, a sharklike, doglike London gangster who arrives on Spain's Costa del Sol to coax or terrorize a former colleague out of retirement. But as brilliant as Kingsley is, this film has a great deal more to offer than the man who once played Gandhi as an "h"-dropping criminal.

"Sexy Beast" is many things, some of them seemingly incompatible. It's a crime thriller, a surrealist art film and a love story. It's an arch and glossy visual entertainment, driven by a rock 'n' roll sensibility, and it's a dense linguistic experience, with its roots in British theater (even in Shakespeare). British cinema has struggled to find its identity in recent years, torn between the provincial whimsy of "The Full Monty" or "Billy Elliot," the gritty realism of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and the semiassimilated Tarantino-ism of Guy Ritchie (aka Mr. Madonna). "Sexy Beast" strikes me as the first film since "Trainspotting" to synthesize all these influences into something utterly distinctive and defiantly British (actually English, in this case) in character.

Director Jonathan Glazer has been known until now for his music videos for the likes of Radiohead, Massive Attack and Blur and his wordless Guinness commercials. That's about to change. Perhaps indirectly following the lead of Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich," Glazer has chosen an idiosyncratic script based on character and dialogue for his first movie, rather than a Hollywood action spectacle, and the results are equally impressive, in a completely different direction. Louis Mellis and David Scinto's screenplay for "Sexy Beast" began as a stage play, and it retains much of that tangled intensity and claustrophobia (which rarely, indeed almost never, works this well on-screen). Their staccato Cockney-poetry dialogue establishes its own rhythm from the get-go, but it's also clear they've been to school on Harold Pinter and David Mamet, those champions of shimmering misdirection, of language as illusion, delusion and music.

In Gal Dove (Ray Winstone), the paunchy, retired thief soaking up the Spanish sun at his ill-gotten hacienda, Mellis and Scinto offer one of the most complex heroes in recent crime cinema. Even his name seems symbolic, suggesting that he's effeminate and peaceable. Indeed Gal seems like a contented if ludicrous figure, sunburned so brown that, as Don Logan will observe, he looks like a man made of leather, or like Idi Amin. His first words -- in a monologue directed at himself, or us, or the blazing sun overhead -- are, "Oh yeah. Bloody 'ell. I'm sweatin' here. I'm roastin.'" Continuing a dialogue with some imaginary interrogator, Gal goes on: "Don't you miss it? What? England? No. What a shithole. What a toilet." What's Spain like, then? "It's hot, fucking hot. Too hot? Not for me. I like it."

It's about to get hotter than even Gal likes. After a runaway boulder from the hillside above his house just misses killing him and plunges into his swimming pool, strange things start to invade Gal's life of leisure. His dreams are haunted by a death-dealing rabbit-demon, and when he and his ex-porn-star wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), join fellow East London expats Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White) for dinner, the other couple has bad news: Don Logan is arriving in Spain the very next day, and he's got a job for Gal.

Although the past history between Gal and Don is never fully explained, we've all seen enough movies to account for it and in any case the fear and menace that descend on the restaurant foursome are marvelously tangible. By this point in "Sexy Beast" (whose title, in true Mamet/Pinter fashion, remains inscrutable) Glazer has already taken more chances, and created a more compelling atmosphere, than some directors manage in their entire careers. There's the poolside montage set to the disturbing early punk hit "Peaches" by the Stranglers, the boulder's-eye view of Gal's near-death experience and the startling, barren beauty of the Spanish Mediterranean landscape (photographed in neonlike brilliance by Ivan Bird).

All this appears to be prologue for the confrontation between the plump and hapless Gal and the bullheaded, carnivorous Don, but without this extended vision of Gal's life in his sunburned, booze-soaked version of paradise, we wouldn't understand what he was fighting for. Winstone, who's virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic (except to the few who caught Gary Oldham's "Nil by Mouth"), isn't the showy, classically trained actor that Kingsley is, but ultimately he has a tougher and more important task. He must convince us that Gal is in the end a noble man motivated by love, willing to sacrifice everything in his fat, comfortable life to protect Deedee (and Aitch and Jackie too, as it turns out) from Don and his world.

Mind you, Kingsley is every bit as good as advertised, and Don seems about to eat Gal alive at any moment. Don is a bald, compact little man in tailored slacks and short-sleeve shirts, informed by both vicious, thuggish rage and malformed New Age wisdom. "I love you," he tells Gal. "You're lovable. Big lovable bloke." But the next morning he bursts into Gal and Deedee's bedroom to kick them awake with satanic fervor, shrieking, "I won't let you be happy! Why should I?" When Gal insists he won't do the job, Don presses for his inner thoughts: "Talk to me, Gal. I'm here for you. I'm a good listener." Then, a moment later, after Gal starts talking: "Fuck off! Cunt!"

Don has been sent by a London crime boss named Teddy Bass (Ian McShane, star of British TV series "Lovejoy") to recruit Gal for a seemingly impossible safe-deposit robbery. "Where there's a will -- and there's a fucking will -- there's a way," Don insists. "And there's a fucking way." But Gal, as we now know, once served nine years in prison doing a similar job for Don. He's no longer fit for such work, he says, and doesn't need the money. They have never committed crimes for money, Don reminds him: "It's the charge, it's the buzz, it's the sheer fuck-off-ness of it all. Am I right?"

Don proves predictably difficult to say no to, and Gal ends up back in London after all, which is depicted as an underwater dream world full of cackling criminals and night journeys to uncertain destinations. I shouldn't tell you much more than that. Don goes mysteriously missing and Teddy is involved in an ambiguous, perhaps sexual, relationship with Harry (James Fox), president of the safe-deposit company. Like Dante or Orpheus, Gal must go all the way down, into the murky realm of Don and Teddy and the rabbit-demon from his dream, if he hopes to see Deedee and the Spanish sun again. This film's final destination, like the unforgettable thrill ride that carries us there, seems to be all things at once: comic and tragic, mystical and ridiculous, grotesque and beautiful.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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