"Sexy Beast"

What makes the movie so good, and so English, finally, is the ambivalence of Don Logan -- for this monster, this demon, this beast is also the life force.

By David Thomson
Published April 25, 2002 7:09PM (EDT)

The more times I see "Sexy Beast," the more ways there are of reading it. I mean, at first, you can't get over the feeling that Gal and Aitch (with their women, Deedee and Jackie) are horribly threatened by the mere existence of Don Logan, the hammer-hammer-hammer of his talk, his imperative, his irresistibility, let alone his arrival at their lovely Costa del Sol retirement home, his utter lack of human softness, his urge to piss on the bathroom floor, the great looming hard-on that has fucked Jackie once before and "loves" her and the fearsome determination to dismantle their "retirement."

I have read that Ben Kingsley (Don Logan) turned up late, after the filming had started, that he kept to himself, that he tried to be as alien and intrusive as possible, as menacing. And it works. Does it ever. You feel that Don's bald head is a weapon, likely to shatter soft faces that give him any grief or trouble. You tremble at the bristling, unbroken savagery in Don Logan, and the torrential obscenity of his talk. This is talk -- fucking this, fucking that and sweating like a cunt -- that begins to be hugely intimidating.

And Don is like a throwback: He must be 50 if he's a day, but he has all the attitude of a kid on his first job, resolved to scare the shit out of everybody -- if only to prevent the least chance of being overawed himself. And he's so old-fashioned compared with Gal and his friends, baking, roasting in the Costa del Sol sunshine, soaking it up, looking forward to the restaurant dinner and telling the old jokes -- the retired life, carefree, got it made, not a lot of money, but enough, with a pool and intertwined hearts, red and pink, on the tiled floor. The perfect end to empty lives.

Not that I mean to bad-mouth the Costa del Sol, the calamari and the British draught beer, all the advantages of the EEC, with Deedee and Jackie as just the kind of very skilled South London whores that a couple of made-it lads have a right to take for granted. Not that I doubt in any way, in their own TV-ish kind of way, that Gal and Aitch are in love with Deedee and Jackie, no matter that Deedee is still treasured off the Old Kent Road for her inspiring performances in 16mm porn epics, and Jackie has been marked forever by carnal knowledge of old Don.

All in all, Gal and the others have just the kind of affluent retirement that Tony Blair and his boys would approve of. And it's Don's humorless gaze that lets us see just how soft, how decadent, how sold-out that is. "Retirement?" When does the sexy beast retire?

What makes "Sexy Beast" so good, and so English, finally, is the ambivalence of Don Logan -- for this monster, this demon, this beast is also the life force, the scourge of any half-baked notion that the human organism "retires" or relents. It may die. It may be shot in the stomach at close range, it may be kicked and beaten to a bloody pulp, so that all it can gurgle is "I love you," and it may -- dead or alive -- be buried under the new tile flooring to Gal's pool, with just a scant half-lung of air when it can smoke a last cigarette, but it is also roaring defiance at any idea of turning it in, being polite, sedate, supine, sunbathing, cooked. The flesh on Don is raw -- and always will be.

Retirement isn't just the passivity that won't go out on a job again, that pays its taxes now and contributes to charity, that reads the Daily Telegraph and reckons English soccer players are either too soft or too foreign. No, retirement is doing dirt on life, on beastliness and on the kind of dying urge by which the blood-soaked Don wants to wrap his arms round Jackie's bare legs and leave her so bloodied that she recalls the thrill and the horror of her first period. It's the beast in us knowing that only the beast keeps us alive.

So the decadence of the Costa del Sol people makes an odd mirroring of the black lizard stillness of Teddy Bass, the boss in London, the brain putting the new job together. And at the end of the film you feel the wistfulness in Teddy Bass that actually still loves Don Logan, and misses him, and finds the way to humiliate Gal by giving him just a tenner for having done the safety-deposit outfit job and for having offed Don, and done it so neatly and mysteriously (an underwater job, if you know what I mean) -- but, after all, he killed the life force, and you can't let that sort of outrage go unnoticed, can you?

The real "sexy beast" is the film, its montaged energy, and our complete surrender to Don's force. It's a very frightening, dangerous film -- and, honestly, if you feel the least bit retired, or settled -- I mean, if you've given up -- well, I wouldn't let it in the house. Wouldn't give it the courtesy or the chance of infecting your VCR.

On the other hand, if, sometimes, sitting in the bosom of your nice life, toying with the calamari or your Deedee, you sometimes hope that the VCR might blow up and burn the house down -- all right, this one's for you.

David Thomson

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

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