In a remote Spanish villa, near a house on a hill, lives a retired gangster named Dove (Ray Winstone) who lounges beside his pool in the sun. Muttering to himself—are these his speaking words or his thoughts? He has nothing to do. It is afternoon, quite hot, and his skin has pinked. Does he jump in the water? Luckily no. On the other side of the pool stands a local Spanish boy who does work around his house. ‘Sweep harder,’ Dove orders.
Getting up from his lounge chair, the aged gangster wanders near the pool’s edge to where only inches away a large boulder falls from the cliff, barely missing him. It lands in the pool. Dove’s life is spared, and the worst is that the pool’s flooring, which consists of two hearts overlapping, is now chipped. When his wife Deedee (Amanda Redman) returns from shopping (she is a retired porn star), they both can’t believe his luck. ‘I could have died,’ Dove says. Given his life of crime, one is inclined to believe that this has not been the first time death escaped him. Unfortunately for him, however, the boulder seems less dangerous than his sociopath nemesis, Don Logan, played by Ben Kingsley. Have you ever thought that the man who played Gandhi could curse, spit, and scream? Oh, you just wait.
Sexy Beast does a great job of building the tension before Logan’s arrival. When the news is shared that he will be flying to Spain, Jackie, who is the wife of Dove’s friend Aitch, looks visibly upset. She and Logan had a fling in the past and all seem to know how aggressive he can be. In his review, Ebert sums him up well: ‘Logan is dangerous not because he is tough, but because he is fearless and mad. You cannot intimidate a man who has no ordinary feelings. Logan is like a pit bull, hard-wired and untrainable.’
Logan, amid his intensity, wants Dove to fly to London so he can assist in a bank heist. Too bad that the bank just so happens to be next door to a Turkish bath, from where the thieves plan to drill. Of course, water floods the scene, and just maybe they should avoid opening that underwater jar that they can’t tell is an urn. (You can guess what happens next.) Mind you, it’s not that the tension leading up to the crime itself is so remarkable, but rather, it all comes down to Kingsley’s performance. As example, when Logan spends the night at Dove’s house, he deliberately pisses outside the toilet bowl and onto the carpet. Insisting that this job be carried out, Dove tells Logan over and over that he doesn’t want to do it but Logan is going to make this difficult. After all, how can you say no to the demands of this man? As it’s been said, Don simply doesn’t do no.
Interestingly, the film put me in mind of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, which involves a heist at a racetrack gone wrong. Kubrick’s narrative has been compared to a game of chess in how well it is executed, and Glazer’s film navigates throughout in much the same way, just with more humor. At times ridiculous, one cannot help but enjoy these characters. Plus, how refreshing is it to have these roles filled by older actors? Amanda Redman would have been in her early 40s when this was filmed, and although she appears by no means old, her fatigue is believable for a woman who might have lived the life of a porn star. (Logan informs Dove that men still gather to wank off to her films ‘Wank off Wednesday’, it’s called.)
But back to Logan—in one memorable scene, a flight attendant asks him to put out his cigarette. Yet rather than obey the rules, he gets off the plane. Then, when Logan is held at the airport and questioned by authorities, he manages to create some yarn about having been molested while on the plane and needing the cigarette to ‘calm him.’ Sure, he is violent and loves to say ‘cunt’ a lot, but one can’t claim he’s not clever.
Sexy Beast is more comedy than a crime drama, even though the narrative centers on a clumsy crime. It is about the absurdity of the colorful characters that take their roles too seriously, and Glazer’s use of cinematography, music, and dream sequences all contribute to a mood of high-minded, atmospheric hilarity. I can’t say I’ve seen criminals quite like these in Sexy Beast, except for maybe the gangsters in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, released the same year (another very clever film).
I saw Sexy Beast upon its release, but what prompted my rewatch was having seen Glazer’s 2004 film, Birth, which is about a ten-year-old boy who believes he is the reincarnation of Nicole Kidman’s deceased husband. (At the time of its release, there was much controversy involving a bathtub scene where Kidman and the boy supposedly get into the tub naked together, but I can assure you that the scene is in no way sexual and doesn’t take place in real-time.) However, considering its high-concept subject matter, Birth is intelligent and well done, even though it does contain some weak narrative contradictions. (It’s ultimately a film involving Romantic fantasy and longing, albeit it disappointingly resorts to the Hitchcockian cliché twist.) Sexy Beast contains no such narrative weakness, however.
For those retiring from a life of crime, life can go from leisure to stress-induced labor in a matter of moments. So much of what can go wrong depends on those you know, and who decides to like you. Are you out or in? In the final scene, although presumably Logan is dead, he just might never be. Smoking his cigarette yet again, this time from his coffin? We can’t be sure and nor does it matter. He just seems like the sort of guy who will live forever, even in Dove’s dreams. Eternally aggressive, he continues to be everywhere.
In my early 20s, I was forced to watch Gandhi for a religion class while enrolled in a Catholic university. (Perhaps I should rewatch to gain a more unbiased perspective.) Predictably, the class’s focus was on Gandhi’s politics and philosophy, rather than the film’s artistic merits. However, I will say that while Kingsley did a good rendering of this wise man, I didn’t remember his performance as much as I did after watching Sexy Beast for the first time. As noted, one could say that in Sexy Beast, Kingsley acts from the back of his head. And was it ever decided to whom the sexy beast is referring? We’ve seen that the crime world is dangerous and ridiculous. Viva Don Logan. What a sexy beast is this.
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More from Jessica Schneider: An Artist’s Overtaking: François Girard’s “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993), The Artist’s Overwhelm: On Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” (2023), Gathering Resistance: Andrzej Wajda’s “A Generation” (1955)