Sexy Beast (2000)

I believe in miracles

Sexy Beast pulls the artful trick of telling the viewer it’s about one thing and then abruptly, hilariously, poetically becoming something different. It’s a larky comedy about a retired hotshot with a murky past, until it’s an explosive drama. It’s a heist movie with no big job, until we smash cut to a bank breach. It’s the story of an untouchably powerful gangster, until he is very much touched. It’s not really a crime story, until it’s a stark reminder of the cycle of violence inherent in criminal enterprise.

The film is Jonathan Glazer’s debut. The English director built his chops on the music video circuit, and it shows in each of his four films to date, which all are as much (and, in some cases, more) concerned with manipulating the tone and aesthetics of their story than they are with their actual narrative. Half the shots here could be from music videos. The instantly iconic opening of Ray Winstone baking in the Spanish sun looks like the kind of 45 second prelude that appears in a late ‘90s TRL video before a teen pop star hops onscreen to splash the tan geezer. (In Sexy Beast, it’s a boulder instead of a teenybopper disrupting the peace.)

The script by Louis Mellis & David Scinto is terrific and unusual, disrupting the normal rhythms of a heist film. It opens with the happily ever after we’d expect to see at the end. The opening hour is segmented into darkly comic episodes that steadily build pressure and made me think of the Coens more than once. Gradually, then abruptly, the film grows more tense leading to a non-linear final act of the heist itself. It’s one of only two scripts Mellis & Scinto ever penned, clever and with a compelling bit of shagginess to it.

But the film really belongs to Jonathan Glazer, who is so in control of its tone that I almost can’t believe it’s his debut. The film has all the style befitting the work of a former music video director (and indeed a bit of the slightness and lack of discipline), but also good discretion about applying visual gimmicks, almost always enhancing the story rather than distracting from it. There are only a few excesses, like the stupid Donnie Darko bunny.

The acting is outstanding. Best in show is Ben Kingsley, a high-voltage hoot as the combustible lynchpin of the story, but he’s only one piece. Winstone carries the film with an affected relaxation about his performance that slowly boils. Ian McShane is at his most fiercely dangerous, especially in the closing half hour.

Sexy Beast is a deeply entertaining debut for Glazer, not quite as sophisticated as his later films but more playful than anything he’s made since, with a terrific visual profile to match its unique and fractured heist story.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

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