Retired gangster Gal (Ray Winstone, Nil by Mouth and The War Zone) has a good life. He’s been working at forgetting his criminal days back in London, so dark and fast-paced, by spending his leisure time at his swanky hacienda, baking in the Spanish coastal sunlight, set off in the middle of the proverbial nowhere. When she’s in view, he likes to gaze lovingly at his charming and genuinely warm ex-porn-star wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman). Otherwise, he lies out by his blazingly blue pool, his tanned skin stretched tautly over his well-fed belly. At night, he and DeeDee go out to eat and drink expensive wine with their longtime friends and fellow East London expatriates, Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White). Not working agrees with Gal, and at this point, he’s not inclined to think much beyond that.
And then, crash. Everything changes. At first, it’s just a large, heavy metaphor that crashes into Gal’s new, sedate life. During the first scene in Sexy Beast, Gal is sunning and his slender young pool boy, Enrique (Alvaro Monje), is cleaning up, when a boulder comes tumbling down the hillside right into the pool. Gal and Enrique are understandably stunned. Still, making its entrance under the Stranglers’ rather ripping song, “Peaches,” on the soundtrack, the big rock is a momentary disruption, a surprising disaster that can be fixed. The next crash that comes into Gal’s sweet life is not so easily repaired. His former associate Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) arrives, sent by slick-haired crime boss Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), who wants Gal’s expertise for one more elaborate bank job, to crack a place that’s “impregnable,” or more poetically, as Don puts it, “fucking futuristic.” Gal doesn’t want to come out of retirement. Don won’t take no for an answer. The tension mounts.
All this layout of the film’s basic conflict, while cleverly shot and edited (the back of Don’s bald head riding in the car on the way to and from Gal’s home reminds you that he is a boulder of sorts), does nonetheless resemble the premise of a most familiar story: reluctant criminal is called back for a last, usually disastrous gig, during which he must prove himself and learn/teach a valuable lesson about just how bad crime is. But Sexy Beast has a twist. screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto, and first-time feature director Jonathan Glazer (who has made music videos for Radiohead, Massive Attack, and Blur, as well as some Guiness commercials) have come up with something slightly different, namely, Don.
Granted, psycho villains per se are not news. But that’s sort of the point with Don—perversely, he’s hyper-aware of his ordinariness, his conformity to expectations of the people around him who submit and look away when he’s in the room, like you’re told to do when a mad dog approaches. And so he feels pressured to be extraordinary, to outdo himself, to perform the next mission absolutely perfectly. If on the one hand, Don is a predictable thug, thoughtless, demanding, prone to violent “solutions,” on another, Don comes into his irrational and strange own. He’s so wrapped up in himself (indicated in his “social” manner, which tends not to acknowledge the person to whom he speaks), that he is unable to conceive of himself in relation to other human beings, except as a force, a means of intimidation. And in this way, he’s not only a character in himself, but a kind of indirect commentary on media versions of psycho killers: he’s not charismatic, there’s no clear reason why he behaves the way he does. He just is. That’s what makes him terrifying, that there is no explanation for him. That and the fact that he is perversely able to turn those around him into reflections of himself, so afraid and anxious that they return his methods with like methods. They become him.
Your introduction to Don suggests just how harrowing it might be to be his “acquaintance.” He rides along in the car when Aitch and Jackie have fetched him from the airport, stoic and apparently blissfully ignorant of the fact that his two companions are so petrified of him and so angry at him (and temselves, for being unable to deal with him) that they can’t speak (while “Peaches” plays again on the soundtrack, just in case you haven’t yet picked up the idea that Don is a boulder hurtling toward Gal). When they arrive at Gal’s place and Don emerges from the car, he doesn’t notice—or pretends not to notice—the tension hanging so heavy in the dry desert air. Everyone else pretends not to notice as well. And his mission is already in motion: having invaded their world, he’s now sucking his quarry into his own world, a world of terror and uncertainty, where the only constant is the treat Don embodies.
The movie poses Don as a kind of walking question. It’s not only about how to deal with catastrophe, though that’s certainly a piece of the question. The other piece has to do with Don’s own self-awareness. Surely, he must understand his effect on people: for a time, he plays this intimidation business like an instrument. Don is not a brute—he tries out a few rudimentary schemes that can’t possibly pan out. He tries reasoning with Gal at first (“Talk to me, I’m a good listener,” he says, clenching his jaw and leering at Gal, to indicate that he’s anything but), but as soon as he encounters resistance, Don turns into a dog with a bone. He tries cajoling (he confides that he’s once had sex with Jackie, as if opening up to Gal will change his mind, bring him back into the camaraderie that Don imagines they once shared), insulting (“Retired! You’re revolting, you look like a leather man . . . a fat crocodile”), then threatening (roaring into Gal and DeeDee’s bedroom late at night, he yells at them, “I won’t let you be happy! Why should I!?”).
When all these approaches don’t work—Gal remains adamant about his retirement, refusing to be unmanned—Don spins into a frenzy, gnawing on his own vulnerability and striking out at Gal’s. Maintaining a veneer of manliness is the concern for all the gangsters, including Gal and the guys back in London. Every one of them is past his prime, but none save Gal can let go of the history they’ve shared. Gal’s has given up his past, and the early scenes of his serene, slightly strange, isolated, and willful retired life suggest that he’s vaguely drifting toward a future, happy in his marriage, complacent in his lack of effort. But if the gangsters look back and Gal looks forward, Don is ever stuck in the present, so tightly tuned to his immediate need and desire that he can’t imagine other moments in time, consequences, or alternative possibilities. This constant sense of urgency and immediacy makes Don fragile, simultaneously a comic extreme and desperate live wire, recognizable and horrifically unknown. Sexy Beast loses some of its juice when he’s not on screen, but when he is, the wreckage he embodies feels irreparable.