Sexy Beast, the debut feature from British director Jonathan Glazer, is a riveting, scary and often funny foray into a traditional American genre: the gangster film. Like the western, the gangster film has always been predominantly American turf, but -- unlike with the western -- every decade or so the Brits come up with an entry that either knocks our best current examples out of the ring or at least redefines the parameters. In the early 1970s, there was Performance and Get Carter; in 1980, The Long Good Friday; in 1989, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; and now, in 2001, it's Sexy Beast.
The opening shots almost suggest a straight-out comedy: A very white guy lies on a whiter chaise lounge located on yet whiter poolside concrete, babbling in an impenetrably thick accent about the heat, while the Stranglers' goofy, retro "Walking on the Beaches" plays on the soundtrack. This is our hero, Gal (Ray Winstone), a paunchy, out-of-shape, middle-aged guy whose life appears idyllic. Gal (short for "Gary") is a crook who has achieved a rare goal: Presumably in his late 40s or early 50s, he has retired to a villa in Spain to spend his days lounging around, hunting with a neighbor boy (Alvaro Monje) and hanging out with his loving wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), and their best friends, Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White).
But the good times are, needless to say, about to end. Like all idylls, Gal's is dependent on luck and inertia, subject to the consequences of his buried past and to the whims of fate. Suddenly he's beset by omens: Thanks to an insane freak accident, simple sunbathing nearly gets him killed; then, while trying to fire up the barbie he almost ignites himself.
These near-misses, however, are merely the prelude to the real horror: One day, Gal gets The Call. His old mate Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) wants to recruit him for a big job. Dread expressions cloud the faces of Jackie, Deedee and Aitch the moment Don's name is mentioned; even the unflappable Gal begins to tremble. It's clear that "no" is not going to be an acceptable response to Don's "offer."
Indeed, when Don shows up, it's apparent that he's a full-on, raging psycho. His insistence on Gal's participation seems motivated more by ego -- he takes "no" as a sign of disrespect -- than by logic. Gal repeatedly and truthfully insists that he's way out of shape for this sort of action; and, when the caper finally happens, we get no sense that he has any specialized skills that make his participation necessary.
Even though things turn grim at the first mention of Don's name and even grimmer when Don shows up, the film is still, in some witty, sardonic way, part comedy -- fueled to a large degree by Kingsley's amazing performance. The actor may have found international renown by playing Gandhi, but the role doesn't exploit his strongest talent. Kingsley has rarely played quite this horrifying a character -- Don is pretty much the ultimate anti-Gandhi -- but he's always displayed an edge of scary intensity, particularly in his Pinter performances (and particularly in Betrayal). Here, given sputtering, staccato dialogue very reminiscent of a Pinter script, he gives that side full rein, and the result is something to watch.
Despite that, he may not even be the scariest character on display. In the final third, Ian McShane (best remembered as the star of the British Lovejoy series) shows up as Don's boss. Where Kingsley is all white-hot, psychotic intensity, McShane comes across like a shark -- evil and cold-blooded, with dead eyes. Even crazy Don seems sentimental in comparison.
Director Glazer does a tip-top job. The film is visually stylish; the story is constantly moving, though not always in an obvious way. If Sexy Beast invokes any of its predecessors, it would be Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance, and not merely because James Fox, that film's star, shows up in a small role here. Like Roeg and Cammell, Glazer plays around with narrative conventions: A crucial expository sequence is presented in a jumbled, multilevel flashback -- what Don tells Gal that Teddy told Stan -- with the visuals no more "realistic" than they ought to be for a story being heard third- or fourth-hand.
And, in the middle of one crucial scene, the movie just stops and leaps forward in time, only revealing that scene's conclusion in teasing bits and pieces as the rest of the action barrels forward.
Sexy Beast is one of the compulsively watchable films this year, second only to Memento. It's a must-see, except for those with a sensitivity to onscreen mayhem. There are one or two scenes of such heavy violence that the squeamish will have to cover their eyes. But no one could argue that these moments are in any way gratuitous.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.