Before Ben Kingsley's first appearance in the crisp new gangster film Sexy Beast, the audience is primed for him. The director, Jonathan Glazer, gets things off to a languorous enough start: We watch Gal (Ray Winstone), a retired thief, growing fat and tan on Spain's Costa Del Sol, a sort of Fort Lauderdale for British hoodlums. Gal's life, which mostly involves dining out with his wife and friends and lounging poolside, is a blissful, blurred idyll, and Glazer shoots these early scenes as though they were taking place underwater. Then the news comes that Kingsley's character, an ex-associate named Don Logan, is due to arrive from London with a job offer, and the film's calm is ruptured. Gal's face goes slack, as though a garrote had snapped tight around his neck. You'd think the devil himself was dropping by for tea.
Logan is a presence even before he's present. But it's his arrival in Spain that gives Sexy Beast its initial kick of nervous energy. We first see Logan from behind, stalking through an airport terminal with a deafening burst of techno to announce him. There's a disturbing single-mindedness to his movement; he's like a bullet speeding to its target. Every inch of Kingsley's coiled frame communicates the threat that Logan represents; even the muscles at the base of his bull-necked and shaven head are compressed. It's an instantly engrossing performance: Kingsley manages to express more with the back of his head in 20 seconds than Bruce Willis has with his entire body in 20 years. Kingsley overwhelms the film in the same way that his character overruns Gal's tranquil hacienda: He's a shark in the kiddie pool.
Kingsley's Logan seems to operate entirely on brute instinct; he's a sociopath by nature, smelling the weakness of those around him and zeroing in on their soft spots. Gal, by contrast, is one big soft spot (even his name suggests effeminacy). Winstone, who was so chilling in The War Zone, here plays a domesticized lump: Gal wants only to enjoy life with his ex-porn-star wife (Amanda Redman) and the couple's friends, Jackie and Aitch (Julianne White and Cavan Kendall). Gal's body, seen poolside, bespeaks his devotion to leisure: He's a contented blob of flesh stuffed into a Speedo. And, indeed, when Logan begins his attack, Gal is powerless to stop him: Logan darts in and out of the frame, disgorging a torrent of verbal daggers, while Gal slouches in a corner. He's like the victim in a Harold Pinter play, caught in a trap he can't comprehend. The dynamic is clear: Logan is the predator, Gal his next meal.
There's a Shakespearean dynamic to Gal and Logan's duel: Gal is like Othello, solid in himself but fundamentally unsure of whether the life he has built is real. Logan, meanwhile, is his low-rent, Cockney Iago. When Logan cajoles Gal into returning to London, you can almost hear Iago's hissed exhortation, "Put money in thy purse." Logan is the agent of chaos and sower of doubt. When he tongue-lashes Gal, Glazer keeps the camera on the helpless victim's face; it's as though Logan's voice were coming from inside Gal's head. Theirs isn't just a battle of wills; it's a battle between the id and the ego. And, as in Othello, there's a strong element of homosexuality in their relationship: Logan's rage comes from years of impacted desire, and he wields his ambiguous sexuality as a weapon. Logan is a fascinating brand of sadist: When we see him flagellating himself before a bathroom mirror à la De Niro in Taxi Driver, he's not just psyching himself up to violence; he's building a self-image as a psycho.
Kingsley's animal presence gives a welcome jolt to what might otherwise be a standard heist picture. Glazer, a director of commercials and music videos (for Britpop bands like Blur and Radiohead) making his first feature, certainly respects the conventions of that moribund genre: A team of crooks, representing a range of conflicting personalities, is assembled for a Big Score; they clash, then pull off the job; and we're left to marvel at their crack timing and technical prowess. In this case, Logan is dispatched by a pomade-slathered crime boss called Teddy Black Magic (the British television star Ian McShane) to recruit Gal for a bank robbery. The team's mission begins with a dour British orgy--imagine Fellini and the Queen Mum getting together to throw a party--and culminates in an inventive underwater safe-cracking sequence. But the details of the job don't seem particularly important. Unlike the heist films of the late Sixties, which celebrated the victory of their lovable antiheroes over the establishment, the rogues here go about their business with drab professionalism. They don't steal because they're seduced by the thrill; they steal because they're thieves.
In tone if not style, Sexy Beast feels like a throwback to acetic gangland pictures such as Get Carter (the 1971 original, that is, not Sylvester Stallone's unsolicited remake). As in that film, there's an undercurrent of despair here: The London underworld is presented as a shabby, colorless wasteland, in vivid contrast to Costa Del Sol's bleached brightness. Because of his background in commercials, Glazer may invite comparison to Guy Ritchie. Yet, where the latter's callow and sadistic thugs batter each other for the pleasure, Glazer isn't interested in gangster culture for its own sake: It's simply the world in which his characters exist. And unlike Ritchie, Glazer hasn't let the stylistic brio developed in his television work turn into rococo excess. He knows how to pace a film, and his restraint makes Gal's mounting anxiety that much more tangible when the screw begins to turn.
Sexy Beast isn't perfect, certainly: The story is a bit of a mishmash, and there's an entirely unnecessary dream sequence in which Gal is pursued by a figment of his subconscious--a pumped-up, demonic Easter Bunny. But Glazer more than makes up for his occasional missteps by building the conflict between Logan and Gal--the beast in the man and the man in the beast--to a feverish, surreal climax. The director clearly appreciates the visceral possibilities of the genre in which he's working, and, on these terms, Sexy Beast is pulp poetry.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.