Sexy Beast is not your typical gangster movie. That much is clear from the opening shot of Ray Winstone’s big, rotund, bronzed belly as he bakes on a sun lounger in a yellow Speedo. There are just two uses of voiceover throughout the 2001 film; the first occurs as the camera settles on Winstone’s Gal, a retired gangster living a quiet life under the at times too-hot Spanish sun. “Bloody ‘ell,” Winstone intones in that instantly recognizable cockney drawl, “I’m sweatin’ ‘ere.” Ivan Bird’s cinematography goes beyond sun-drenched, it’s downright sweaty, clinging to the actors’ skin like the beads of moisture on Gal’s belly. As if that wasn’t a brazened enough introduction, less than a minute later, the camera jumps to the perspective of a giant boulder rolling down a hill as it launches into Gal’s swimming pool, almost killing him.
The whole idea of Brits living it up in Spain has taken on new meaning in the post-Brexit era, and it’s fun wondering what Gal would make of his countrymen opting to leave the EU only to realize, once it’s too late, that it also means giving up their precious holiday homes. Maybe he wouldn’t care, since it’s a pretty idyllic retirement Gal has carved out for himself in his lovely “hacienda,” as he proudly describes it, alongside dutiful but self-possessed wife Deedee (Amanda Redman). The retired-gangster-comes-back-for-one-last-score is well-trodden ground, but director Jonathan Glazer, making his feature debut after several take-notice music videos for the likes of Blur and Radiohead, imbues Sexy Beast with a romanticism rarely seen in these kinds of movies.
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Sexy Beast is an impressively sensitive film, with Gal representing the “soft gangster” archetype that something like Mickey Blue Eyes didn’t have the confidence to follow through with, instead settling for making Hugh Grant’s titular character a bit of a fool instead. Gal’s no fool — he did nine years behind bars for his crimes, and getting back in the game holds no enticement whatsoever. And why should it? Living in Spain, away from the dirty grime of London, he’s free to hang out with his friends, spend quality time with Deedee and simply just be. At one point, Gal quite literally counts his blessings, from the “lovely wife” to his swimming pool, which will be fixed in just a few days in keeping with how easy everything is for him now. Typically, the gangster’s former life is inviting — in Sexy Beast, the focus is flipped to make a salient point about how wonderful settling down can be.
Funnily enough, screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto also penned Gangster No. 1, which was released just a few months after Sexy Beast in the U.K. and boasts the pervasively mucky energy one expects from gangster movies. Women barely feature in that film, whereas Sexy Beast’s Deedee isn’t just a fully formed character in her own right, but also the catalyst for the movie’s biggest turning point. It’s established early on that she and Gal have a solid, happy marriage — but more than, that they’re equal partners. So often, wives and girlfriends are presented as nags or sluts, even tokens to be won, but Deedee is the light of Gal’s life. He watches her dancing with a dreamy look on his face as the smoke from Gal’s cigarette moulds into a big heart. This gooey romantic moment is quickly followed up by another sequence of delightful magical realism, as the couple floats in space together. It’s unclear how long they’ve actually been married, but Gal and Deedee are totally committed. They still make each other laugh, dress up for each other and go out for romantic dinners. Plus, a shot of them cuddled up naked in bed together suggests their sex life is active too.
Sexy Beast is essentially about Gal being torn between his old life and his new one, but taking the romantic relationship angle to its (un)natural conclusion, the film is also keenly interested in how he’s torn between two lovers; Deedee and the terrifying Don Logan, as played by a never-scarier Ben Kingsley. Unlike most gangster flicks, Gal doesn’t even consider doing the job. He turns Don down over and over, but in keeping with being a total psychopath, Don won’t take no for an answer, as he quite literally responds to Gal’s declarations by screaming the word “Yes” in his face. The spectre of Don Logan looms large over Sexy Beast, the camera slowly fading out after his name is first uttered to show the gravity of Don’s incoming arrival. The ruthless kingpin is introduced bald head first in what will become a recurring image that’s so intense Kingsley must have been clenching every muscle in his face and neck to get the desired effect. The older actor’s stature is more diminutive than Winstone’s but Don is incredibly intimidating — his arrival is positioned as considerably more hassling than a boulder tumbling into the pool for Christ’s sake.
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Sexy Beast explores potent themes of masculinity, ageing and loyalty via these charged scenes between Winstone and Kinsgley. Watching two heavyweights go head-to-head is exciting enough, but both actors are also playing against type; Kingsley as a motormouthed but frighteningly soft-spoken lunatic, and Winstone, the ultimate British scumbag player, as a sweet-natured former wise guy who cowers in his silk robe when confronted by his former boss. Don has major insecurity issues, and indeed the problem with Gal rejecting his offer has more to do with ego rather than a genuine sense of duty. Don’s pep talks to himself in the mirror are completely nuts, but where his true nature really shines through is in an airplane freak-out for the ages. After refusing to put his cigarette out, Don storms off the flight, sweetly noting, “I hope this crashes” as he does so. Despite a five-hour stint in detention, he never takes a seat — something that’s mirrored in an earlier scene, where Don anxiously awaits his flight and stands as every other passenger sits around him.
Don is a quiet, ruthlessly controlled psycho. Kingsley’s posture is stiff from head to toe, the intensity traveling from how he holds himself all the way up to his tight expression. Blatantly misogynistic, Don acts as though Gal and his buddy Aitch (the late Cavan Kendall, to whom the film is dedicated) are pussy-whipped, frequently bragging about bedding Aitch’s wife. Close-ups are judiciously used throughout Sexy Beast, typically communicating how tense a situation is, and the frame is never tighter than when Gal rejects Don’s offer. Whenever Gal and Deedee are enjoying each other’s company, the scope is wide, the camera lovingly capturing their picturesque surroundings. When DeeDee finally shoots Don, Glazer swoops wide again, basking in the glory of the moment a woman who was crucially never afraid of him finally shuts the little guy up. It’s fitting that Don is buried under a mosaic of conjoined hearts, since it’s Gal’s love for his wife that powers him through the inevitable job (“I know you love me ‘cause I feel strong” he coos to Deedee on the phone). Gal’s loyalty is to his wife, not Don, which is something the kingpin refuses to even acknowledge let alone accept.
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The short sequences set back in London are shot first with a creepy red glow, as Don discusses his dastardly plan with another gangster, highlighting their assumed allure, before descending into murky muckiness once realized. Sexy Beast is dripping with style, but although the on-location footage in Spain is lovely to look at it, the movie is also tacky, particularly when it comes to the costumes. Glazer doesn’t glamourize Gal’s former lifestyle. In fact, while he is ultimately lured back to his old stomping ground, the frankly bizarre heist is an almost insignificant part of the story. The design of the bank they rob is angular, blocky and very 60s. Ian McShane’s Teddy calls it “futuristic” but really the place looks like a holdover from a dodgy sci-fi movie. Considering the many moments of dreamy surrealism scattered throughout the film — a standout sequence sees Gal eating dinner alone in a field as a creepy bunny-man advances on him brandishing a gun — it’s worth noting the actual gangster stuff is mundane, borderline ugly and presented with little flourish. Poor Gal only makes a tenner for his troubles, with Teddy demanding change from a twenty, but the earrings he pilfers from the bank vault represent all that really matters to him: getting home to Deedee. Even if Teddy comes calling, as he threatens to with his “drop by” comment, Gal knows his home is protected.
McShane is a welcome presence in Sexy Beast, as he is in any project, rounding out a peerless cast, and his Teddy is a fascinating character study. Clearly queer-coded, given an incident at an orgy — during which Teddy sits around drinking a cup of tea, as you do — and obsessed with proper manners — he wordlessly asks Gal to move his bag over so Teddy can sit next to him — Teddy is another anomaly in a gangster movie, more specifically a British one, where homophobia is frequently widespread. Sexy Beast is disarmingly funny, even caustic, but never nasty despite the pitch-black closing moments, which involve that bunny-man again and Don smoking in a very unlikely spot. The joke is 100 percent on the hard men wearing fancy suits and playing at being bank robbers, rather than on women, queer folk or anybody else, which is a welcome change that gives Glazer’s debut a modern, almost progressive touch. Gal isn’t afraid to get in his feelings and neither is the movie, which is ultimately what makes it work as well as it does. Audiences can root for this guy to get home to his wife and continue sunbathing, rather than hoping Gal will revert back to acting up with the lads.
Beautifully shot, wildly inventive and devilishly unpredictable (like a travelogue with violence), and with a swooning, dead-cool soundtrack to match (the needle drop of “Peaches” by The Stranglers is absolute perfection), Sexy Beast is well worth celebrating on its 20th anniversary. There really is nothing else like it, and clearly that’s by design.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.