O-Watcher: Sexy Beast Accentuates the Negative
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 31, 2008
Reader and friend of IITS Erick Bieritz commented on my Smokin’ Aces to chastise me for classifying Jonathan Glazer’s 2000 directorial debut Sexy Beast as being a film in the post-Tarantino mold, saying that it was in fact “more like having a really vivid dream about Rififi and then describing it to your therapist the next day.” He’s right, of course–about the Tarntino thing, anyway, having never seen Rififi (or attended therapy) I can’t exactly vouch for his correction. The reasons why I included Beast in the post-QT discussion were for the film’s superficial virtues–the slick photography and flashy editing, the use of quirky and off-color tough-guy characters, the retro pop music, and so forth. But obviously, Sexy Beast is not your garden variety action-comedy, and for what it is, it’s obviously far ahead of the Guy Ritchie and Joe Carnahan flicks I associated it with.
That said, I have no idea what exactly this movie is. It’s definitely about something (I think), but I couldn’t begin to tell you what it is. So much about this movie I find inexplicable, not the least of which being the film’s title, which as far as I can tell serves no purpose beyond providing a LOL-worthy caption to a credit-sequence Ray Winstone crotch shot. The real X-Factor in the movie, though, is of course Ben Kingsley, in an Oscar-nominated performance and with an all-time classic film character that elevates what otherwise feels like a relatively boring heist movie to unbelivably unsettling heights.
Kingsley is terrifying in this movie for so many reasons. The first half of Beast is mostly spent on Kingsley trying to browbeat retired ex-con Ray Winstone into joining him in one last heist, a proposition that Gal has no interest in whatsoever, living a blissful existence with his wife and friends in some desert estate in Spain and seeing no reason to give it up. The tactics Don (Kingsley’s character) uses to persuade Gal (Winstone) are part Crime and Punishment-style manipulation (as Gal notes) but mostly consist of straight up third-grade bullying tactics–resorting to lots of yelling, cursing, cheap shot insults, and a couple of well-timed punches. These methods should probably seem puerile and uninteresting compared to some of the smarter and more psychologically (and physically) intimidating villains of recent years, but Don’s methods are so straightforward, so unflinching and so unceasing that you feel almost as terrorized as poor Gal does, as memories of all Moe-type bullies you might have encountered who you feel you probably could’ve mentally outsmarted if you could ever get up the courage (or even get the chance) to get a word in edgewise.
What really makes Don such a scary character, though, is how obviously unhinged he is–and I don’t mean that in the “I’LL FUCK YOU UP MAN I’M CRAZY YO” sort of “unhinged” that just equates to “I’m relatively OK with the prospect of hurting people and/or myself.” Kingsley described the character once as “the most miserable person in the world,” a description which definitely helped me see the character for who he really is–a cripplingly insecure, lonely, and legitimately mentally unbalanced individual that probably equates the idea of getting Gal back on the team by using whatever means necessary to simply reconnecting with him as an old friend. He’s a sympathetic character, somehow, but not one you’d want to exchange too many syllables with. Watching him take each of Gal’s successive refusals more and more personally, you know it’s only a matter of time before he snaps (on a larger scale than he does in an average conversation, that is).
And then comes the O-Watcher. Well, not to get ahead of myself, it’s preceded by the movie’s second-best and funniest scene, where an extremely irritable Don, after poutedly storming off Gal’s estate, semi-intentionally gets himself kicked off his plane back to the UK by threatening various passengers and stewardesses and excusing his behavior to the authorities by claiming he did it in response to being sexually harrassed by the stewards. Then he’s off to the races, cabbing back to Gal’s place to give him one final piece of his mind.
This scene–it’s hard to put into words how effective Kingsley is in it. Every syllable, every bit of body language…he just couldn’t get it righter. The way he starts screaming from the moment he steps out of the cab, despite the fact that he has no reason to think Winstone and company can even hear him yet. The way he marches around Winstone while berating him, like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. The way he connects various semi-thoughts and half-baked insults in a rapid-fire, almost stream of consciousness pace, sounding more like an Amiri Baraka poem than an actual human being. And then, the culmination of a half-film’s worth of futility:“Not this time, Gal. Not this time. Not this fucking time! NO! No-No-No-No-No-No-No-No-NO! NO! No-No-No-No-No-No-No-No-No-No-No-No-NO! NO! NOT THIS FUCKING TIME, NO FUCKING WAY! NO FUCKING WAY! NO FUCKING WAY! NO FUCKING WAY YOU MADE ME LOOK A RIGHT CUNT!!!”
Kingsley makes The Zombies sound positively affirmative. His performancy is so inconceivably overpowering (THIS IS FUCKING GANDHI FOR FUCKS SAKE) that it actually leads me to believe that perhaps Ray Winstone’s performance is significantly undervalued, simply by allowing Gal to seem so meek and powerless by comparison. Look how little resistance he puts up when Don smashes a glass bottle over his head, despite him even warning “I’ma kill you, Gal. I’ma fucking kill you.” What choice does he have, really?
And that’s one of the main reasons you gotta watch this scene whenever it’s on–because, for reasons I’ll never quite understand, it’s the last one Kingsley gets in the movie. Though we don’t find it out for certain until later in the movie, Gal’s compadres end up killing Don, and the rest of the movie is Gal back in London working on the heist with Ian MacShane of Deadwood. Honestly, I barely even remember what happens in the rest of this movie–something with a drill and some underwater shit–because after Kingsley peaces out, who fucking cares? Imagine if one of those kids got the drop on Robert Mitchum halfway through Night of the Hunter, and the rest of the movie was just the two of them playing jacks at recess or something. I don’t get it.
In all fairness, it’s not so terrible to have a cable-frequent movie that you only ever really feel like watching half of–the world of TV is a wide one, and it’s nice to have a movie that allows you to get its O-Watcher out of the way and move on to bigger and better things. Still, it’s just one of the many things about this movie that leaves it as a fascinating question mark in my mental filing cabinet–maybe it’ll make sense once I watch Rififi. Or enter therapy.