Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the Russell Crowe road-rage thriller Unhinged racing (unwisely) into theaters, we’re looking back on other films that cast movie stars as psychopaths.
To say that the indelible psycho gangster Don Logan looms large over Jonathan Glazer’s debut feature Sexy Beast would be an understatement. We spend most of the first hour of this compact, idiosyncratic crime drama wondering what he might be capable of and part of the rest guessing where he went. He is intimidating, childish, unpredictable, repulsive, stubborn, and—as portrayed by Ben Kingsley—quotably funny, speaking a Harold Pinteresque staccato of insults and threats. With his shaved head and strange affect, he is the embodiment of the repressed violence that has come back into the life of the retired London thief Gal Dove (Ray Winstone).
As Sexy Beast opens, Gal and his ex-porn-star wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), are living comfortably in the southern part of Spain, which is basically Florida for English criminals. This is a lazily comfortable existence, but its imminent, disastrous disruption is starkly foreshadowed by the giant boulder that rolls into the Doves’ property in the opening scene, landing on the heart-shaped mosaic in their swimming pool. Over dinner, Gal and Deedee’s similarly super-tanned friends Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White) reveal that their mutual acquaintance Don is flying from London, which is enough to make everyone’s skin crawl. Only later will we learn the reason behind his visit: He has come to bully Gal into taking part in a vault heist planned by the sinister criminal mastermind Teddy Bass (Ian McShane).
Like Glazer’s subsequent features, Birth and Under The Skin, Sexy Beast is ultimately about an intrusive presence calculated to make viewers squirm. Anyone who’s seen those movies may recognize other currents, among them pervasive sexual discomfort and a taste for the surreal (which in this case extends to some memorably strange dream sequences involving a killer rabbit). But while Glazer’s later works operate in a sustained eerie atmosphere, this one is defined by sudden, electrifying changes in pitch and tone. These include Don’s arrival; a heist plan explained via a zigzagging mile-a-minute montage that rips open the movie’s otherwise deliberate pacing; and a third act that unexpectedly leaps forward in space and time.
It’s hard to overlook the bold theatricality of some of these maneuvers, which come courtesy of Louis Mellis and David Scinto’s hyper-detailed script. (While screenplays are expected to adhere to the rule of one page per minute of screen time, the script for Sexy Beast, which is only 89 minutes long, runs almost 200 pages.) Glazer’s style is equally controlled and playfully vivid, mixing symmetrical minimalism with frequently surprising effects, angles, and camera movements. It’s almost as though it were oscillating between the extremes of blinding sunlight and nocturnal darkness that characterize the movie’s pitch-black comedy—not to mention the mood swings of Kingsley’s Oscar-nominated performance, which gave the actor his best opportunity to subvert his naturally dignified screen presence.
Which is to say that Sexy Beast doesn’t move like most post-Scorsese, post-Tarantino crime movies, even though it delivers on all of their pleasures. The profane dialogue and twisty personalities are carried on the shoulders of a uniformly excellent cast that offers three commanding performances: Kingsley; the fearsome, barrel-chested Winstone, who is effectively cast against type as the reluctant Gal; and McShane, whose Luciferian man in black implies the existence of a deeper evil.
Otherwise, it goes against most expectations that might be set by its status as both a gangster film and a heist movie of the storied one-last-job variety. The other participants in the heist are non-characters and the usual emphasis on underworld etiquette is tossed aside and replaced by a tight focus on the psychologies and pathologies of Gal and Don. A lesser movie might portray the former’s post-retirement existence as empty and the latter as a purely irrational malefactor—but in fact, the depiction of Gal’s love for Deedee is romantically sincere, and the actual abstract menace is Teddy Bass. That isn’t to imply Don is merely one unhinged criminal. Vacillating between creepy stares and verbal assaults, unable to accept rejection or to conceive of any relationships that aren’t based on bullying and jealousy, he is all that must be buried in order to lead a happy life.
Availability: Sexy Beast is available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, DirectTV, and VUDU. It can also be streamed on Hulu or Amazon Prime with a Cinemax subscription.