Unleashing a literal boulder on the tired swank of the British crime subgenre, Jonathan Glazer builds his debut feature not on flashy con jobs marked by the coolness with which they’re executed, but the anxiety with which these jobs and the people associated with them bear down and haunt weak and insecure ex-criminals. In that regard, there’s nothing particularly sexy about Sexy Beast, both physically and psychologically. Even the beautiful compositions and colors of Ivan Bird’s cinematography depicting the home life of an English ex-con, Gal (Ray Winstone), and his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), in their Spanish villa reek of a superficiality that suggests false happiness. Every character in the film is an insecure child attempting to hide behind a veneer of normalcy, along with their disconcerting anxiety that creates a transparent masculinity. Even the racist, homophobic, misogynistic slurs that accompany the frequent genre-standard cussing come off as a fail-safe defense mechanism stemming from this self-consciousness. Right off the bat do Glazer’s deconstructionist intentions become clear: As Winstone bakes in the sun with his healthy gut hanging over his Speedoed crotch, the symbolic boulder rolling down the hill toward him signifies we’re a long way from the hard-bodied and likable Stathams and Caines that have populated the genre.
Granted, Winstone shares a kindred spirit in the conflicted, star-glasses-wearing Bob Hoskins from Neil Jordan’s equally undermining Mona Lisa, yet Glazer’s film bravely favors a story of nominal stasis, allowing the focus to shift to the infantile yet complex characters Winstone’s thug shares the film with. His Gal has retired to Spain, where his days are spent mostly shooting the shit with old friends Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianna White). His idyllic life is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of another boulder of sorts, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a vulgar criminal who demands that Gal come back to England to take part in a robbery orchestrated by Teddy Bess (Ian McShane). Logan’s presence, however, prompts revelations and untapped violence to arise out of his former colleagues.
Glazer has only made two feature films, both interesting and experimental explorations of comfortable, stable existences broken by the sudden arrival of an intruder. It’s only this common theme that links these two films together, as aesthetically they couldn’t be more dissimilar (his 2004 film Birth even tops Sexy Beast in the batshit-crazy department). Sexy Beast manages to be the more visually arresting, as Glazer’s talent for composition and impressionistic lighting furthers the intricacies of the film’s characterizations rather than resting on sheer showboating. The open, bright tableaux of Spain practically gives the audience a tan along with Winstone, a breathability in spatial configuration that perfectly mirrors Gal and company’s emotional detachment from the past. Counter this with the flat, steely underground tunnels of England in the film’s latter third, harsh and cramped interiors that seem almost like the circulatory system within Gal’s haunted mind. But there are some moments that do provide almost too fine a point on Glazer’s subtext, such as the strong Satanic red on Logan’s stoic mug, and two-shots highlighted by Gal and Logan’s profiles that shows what we already know about Gal and Logan’s feelings toward each other.
But it seems damn near impossible to get out of a critical evaluation of Sexy Beast and not even mention Kingsley’s completely immersive portrayal of Don Logan. The film’s performers are all-around excellent (McShane provides an anchor of subtlety to some of the shrill histrionics, and Winstone exudes potent personal angst from simple offhanded comments like ordering calamari), but it’s Kingsley’s menacing and humorous performance, a brutal force of near poetic nature, that reveals new layers with each viewing of the film. Of course, to call the character the most successful aspect of Sexy Beast would be disingenuous to Glazer’s artistry. The filmmaker’s attentive camera and inclination to inactivity without any sort of audience catharsis is a shrewd directorial decision; the film’s action comes from extended dialogues that let the performances percolate until they’re on the verge of exploding. It’s telling that the climactic heist that hovers over the film only takes about 10% of the running time and is over with quickly, as Glazer’s interests lie in the willful ignorance and immaturity of his characters. To Glazer, as with Don Logan, it’s all about preparation, preparation, preparation.
The film’s 1080p transfer is stunning, with the actors’ skin tones, tanned or not, rendered accurately, and the bright colors of the Spanish-set scenes countering the dark grading of the England sequences with exceptional clarity, though the level of grain is sometimes excessive, and as such distracting. The DTS-HD audio is impressively clear and immersive, highlighting the contrasting music that fits nicely underneath the film’s fine dialogue, especially Don Logan’s rampaging diatribes, without drowning each other out. Oddly, Twilight Time includes a version of the film cropped at 1.78:1 alongside the original 2.35:1 version.
Lifted from the old Region 1 DVD release, the extras are light and disappointing. A commentary featuring producer Jeremy Thomas and Ben Kingsley is your usual run-of-the-mill back-patting session, though the pair does intermittently provide deeper insight into the making of the film, and it’s admittedly fascinating to hear the soft-spoken and eloquent Kingsley articulate the process by which he gave life to Don Logan while he observes the sheer cruelty of the character on screen. Kingsley posits Logan as the "unhappiest man on the planet," a tragic appropriation that allows Kingsley to dwell into the misunderstood nature of the character. A short, behind-the-scenes EPK featurette provides nothing new that the commentary didn’t cover, but it’s nice to hear from Jonathan Glazer himself on it. Also included is an isolated score track, trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo.
The film’s title may not apply to any one of its characters, but this 1080p transfer is one sexy...ahem, well, you get it.