Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Neo-Noir Watch: Sexy Beast (2000)

Watched:  03/05/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Jonathan Glazer
Selection:  Me

I had a budding interest in noir and neo-noir when this movie came out, but I remember having no interest in the film.  I suppose it was a trailer or write-up or word-of-mouth that did the trick, but I couldn't say.  Now it's on Criterion, and my tastes have ebbed and flowed over the years, and as I couldn't recall why I didn't want to see this movie, I gave it a shot.

In some circles, this movie is a bit of a classic, enough so that there is a television show coming in short order (or arrived already in England, I don't know) that tells the story of the early lives of the main characters of the movie.  

The movie is a weird mix of a single-location character drama and crime movie, and I... didn't think it worked.  Which is a tough thing to say about a beloved movie with famed actors like Sir Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone and Ian McShane and which still gets referred to a lot.  But I just... didn't buy it.


The movie is about a retired crook, Gal (Winstone), who has retired to Spain where he's spending his days getting tan and fat by his pool, living with his significant other, DeeDee (Amanda Redmond) and hanging out with a fellow retired crook, Aitch, and his ladyfriend, Jackie.  

They get a call that Don (Ben Kingsley) is coming with a job, and this seems to be a problem.  We soon learn, everyone is afraid of Don and humors him as best they can.  

Don is... nuts.  He wants what he wants, seems insanely touchy, and just shouts at and threatens everyone.  He's essentially just an asshole and a dumb bully.  Our lead, Gal, and his pal, Aicht, are career criminals who seem to know Don well.  This is not new to them.  

DeeDee, of course, does not want Gal to get drawn back into work in London, and Gal's insistence to Don that he's not going back is taken badly. There's also a bit that Don used to sleep with Aicht's ladyfriend, and maybe there's some motivation for Don to see her again - but it's not really carried through as a full thought?

Don seems to finally give up, only to get as far as the return plane trip before he de-planes and heads all the way back to Gal's for a confrontation.

We then see Gal arrive in London, but without Don.   Don never shows, folks shrug and they go about their business.  There's an elaborate heist.  Then some follow up with Ian McShane and Gal tying up loose ends.  

As I say, a lot in this movie just doesn't make sense or doesn't really work for me.  It all feels like writers and a director trying to create a scenario rather than thinking through "this doesn't feel remotely like how any of this would actually go down".  

I don't believe a 50ish career criminal like Don would be let anywhere near a sensitive operation like the heist in the movie.  Frankly, I'd guess he'd be sitting in jail for any of a few dozen crimes he seems willing to engage in on a minute-by-minute basis.  Kingsley got an Oscar nod for the role, and he's utterly convincing - you can forget how Kingsley just disappears into a part - but part of believing a character is believing this character didn't materialize just before they walked onto the screen.  And we know from everyone's reaction:  he is just like this.  He may have always been like this.

That has implications, and part of that means you'd keep this guy far, far away from you unless you absolutely needed him - and this operation just doesn't.  He's not a hit man.  He's not the guy the mob boss keeps around to do dirty work.  He's a heist man.  And I don't buy it.  Who would work with this guy?  Who would be friends with him?  Who would trust him to do a job without causing more problems than he solves?

If Gal and Aicht know how Don is - why wouldn't they pack up their girlfriends and send them away?  Why do they stand around and take his verbal abuse?  And for how long have they been doing it?  And why?  

I can see how critics got wow'd by the initial viewing of the movie.  Kingsley is incredible.  It's a post-Tarantino heisty-type film that feels as based in character as the crime movies of Jules Dassin.  But the characters just don't really add up, or needed infinitely more explanation than what we got.

Admittedly, as an American, and a Texan at that, I find English neo-noir a bit of a weird watch.  Brit noir crime movies take place in a world where you can't just wander into a sporting goods store and walk back out with enough firepower to take on a platoon, so the weights and balances are decidedly different.  But it also means the movies rely on threats to our lead characters by tough guys whose sole intimidation factor seems to be "well, he's just really nasty.  He might use some harsh language and then punch you up a bit."  Which, in an American movie would mean "so I better have a gun ready so he won't do that."  But in one of these movies, I'd expect you'd just need to think two or three steps ahead, and particularly in this movie - our leads don't seem capable of that, and as a viewer, I was just left asking questions.  

As this movie wants to put everyone but Don and Teddy on their heels, looking at their shoes while they get yelled at - it barely feels like the behavior of grown adults, let alone that of career crooks who know their mates' bullshit and have dealt with it over years.

I'll accept that the heist works how it does on screen.  It is what it is, and it was kind of clever-ish.  

What I don't buy is the story Gal tells when he arrives in London.  There was no reason for the detail that he got a phone call from Don.  It's unnecessary, something unprovable and - I'd argue - out of character for Don to call and say he arrived home safely, and therefore the story feels dumb.  So why not say "he left and went to the airport, I said I'd be here Friday."  If anyone knew Don and knew he got on and off the place, he could have easily said "we had a row, he left, came back, we sorted it, I'm here.  Is he not here?"  

I mean, given the character we saw, was it that hard to buy he pissed off the wrong cab driver in a foreign land?  Stopped somewhere and got into a fight with some locals who weren't having it?  There were a million possibilities.  It's a miracle he hasn't pissed off the wrong person along the way well before now.  

Or... if this is the Don everyone knows, why not just say "he tried to get rough with us, and it got ugly.  I'm afraid things went south when he threatened our ladyfriends."  Is the expectation that Gal is supposed to just stand there and let himself be murdered by Don?  He's clearly a psychopath.  What are the stakes here?  

Later in the film, in its way, I *fully* expected Ian McShane's characters reaction when it happened.  Who would love Don? Who would care about him?  How would he even be seen as a useful tool?

As far as giving actors things to do, the movie is great.  I just don't get why this movie is ranked so highly, if Wikipedia is accurate.  It leaves too many open questions and feels like a subplot of a better crime movie, and because it basically seemed to be about allowing oneself to be verbally abused, the story just feels flimsy.  

Wikipedia describes the movie as "a dark comedy", which...  okay?  I guess.  I guess it's funny to see Don go off and piss on someone's floor?  And his comeuppance?  But it also feels weirdly predictable.

Maybe in 2000 we were more shocked and delighted by this sort of thing.  Seeing extreme characters like this is a thrill going back to Widmark in Kiss of Death.  But the set up there made sense.  I kind of remember a movie or two other in this period that relied on similar "we're going to stand around and get yelled at" set ups that critics adored.  But it's never worked for me.  And I think applying this formula to movies about career criminals is an iffy proposition.


RHPT said...

I watched this movie years and years ago, and that scene where Don pisses all over the bathroom floor still sticks with me. It disturbed me deeply.

The League said...

It's a fascinating bit of character in a mundanely vile act and says more than a speech or combative scene could. And I think Kingsley and Glazer get the credit they do because of this part of the film.