by Harlan Kennedy




The gangster wrap (n.m.) Dismembered meat and accompaniments wrapped in an unleavened script with seasoning of ‘style’ plus add-your-own sachets of spurting red liquid. Like any fast food, can be mouth-watering or tasteless depending on where you buy it.



What a time to be alive in British cinema. Just when it seemed that UK screen violence had crashed into a brick wall, leaving no survivors, it gets up and starts dancing again. After all those interchangeable gangster flicks with Ray Winstone putting the frighteners on folk in Thameside-Tarantino dialogue, all hail to SEXY BEAST, the best British crime pic in years. Suddenly we discover flavors we had forgotten existed in crime and punishment cinema this side of the Atlantic.


Following the promise of Paul McGuigan’s 1999 GANGSTER NO 1 (by the same screenwriters, Louis Mellis and David Scinto), Jonathan Glazer’s film isn’t just about crime, it is about life, death, birth, love, pain and the whole damn thing, directed by the guy who made those Guinness ads, notably the one with white horses stepping over mythic surfwaves, the ad voted best of all time in a recent poll.


British audiences who thought they had died and gone to Purgatory in the 1990s can now look back on the first-wave gangster pics almost fondly. Perhaps we needed them to lay the ground-rules for these new films. What the early batch offered – FACE, MOJO, LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, FINAL CUT, ESSEX BOYS, RANCID ALUMINIUM, LOVE HONOUR AND OBEY… - was a mod-Jacobean picture of post-Thatcher Britain: a world where lovably overweening villains rose to the top or tried to, where the crime world was the perfect scientific environment to study ‘the survival of the fittest’, where the individualist, me-first ethic of Mrs T ("There is no such thing as society") kept returning like the revitalized dinosaurs of JURASSIC PARK. That atavistic resurgence menaced the liberal centrism and prescriptive egalitarianism of the Major and Blair times. For the one thing everyone prefers – or at least every filmgoer – to earnestly evangelized new virtues is vividly dramatized old vices.


The only trouble with the initial gangster wave was that the dramatizations weren’t vivid enough. The worst of them assumed it enough merely to behave badly – to present a thieves-fall-out plot and people it with Gangster Rep actors and corrosive dialogue, spiced with stunt moments of violence or humiliation. But the result wasn’t a new vitality, more a treadmill of new cliches. Fake menace: effortful black comedy; labored plot twists and counter-twists.


GANGSTER NO 1, scripted from their own play by Mellis and Scinto, was the first breakthrough. As directed by Paul McGuigan it didn’t back away from the tradition to date, it transformed, intensified and at the same time critiqued it. The verbal comedy went beyond slick to mordant. The moral bleakness was shocking, not shop-window. The piece de resistance, in a plot about a preening gang lord (David Thewlis, dressed and coiffed as if to resemble politician and ex-Thatcherite poster boy Michael Portillo) toppled by his right-hand hitter (Paul Bettany), was a victim’s-eye-view killing that stormed every citadel of taste and destroyed every scrap of audience security. We virtually watch ourselves being stabbed and dismembered. The killer is messianic in his passion. This isn’t a joke death, it is judgment day as eschatological savagery. And the disorientation, as we peer up from the floor at our own murderer, is terrifying. That severed arm – is it ours? That curtain of blood – is that over our own eyes?…


Guy Ritchie’s SNATCH, released in Britain near-simultaneously, also suggested that a joky-postmodern genre was getting darker, more modern. Nothing in Mr Madonna’s earlier moneyspinner LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS has the power of a scene in which Irish gypsy Brad Pitt is held back by two arsonists as he watches – struggling and silently screaming – the trailer containing his mother go up in flames. The film’s climactic boxing scenes, almost going to the death, similarly take violence beyond the funny-picturesque. And the dialogue has a primitive obsessiveness less polished, less ‘cute’, than in the first film.


Now comes SEXY BEAST and all bets are off concerning the UK gangster film’s imminent demise. Director Jonathan Glazer, assisted by Mellis and Scinto, wallows in the delight of transforming familiar ingredients. The hero, a retired criminal sunning his superannuated days in Spain, is played by Ray Winstone, whose blubbery, patio-stretched body is embossed on the screen in shot one as if in a direct challenge to the audience: "Here is one fat, hackneyed icon of British crime cinema. Let’s start again and re-create him/it/you."


The movie is about rebirth in every sense. This aging non-Adonis swimming in uterine waters of a second babyhood is visited by a demon from the past, played by Ben Kingsley with a mesmerizing, machine-lathed cockney rasp. Don Logan (Kingsley) wants Gal Dove (Winstone) back in London for one more heist (another gangster cliché awaiting transformation). Logan’s character is demonic, but even before his arrival we get notice that the film is about shock epiphanies. The swimming pool with its intertwined-hearts mosaic floor; the open-plan hacienda; the cocktails on the patio; the wife and the couple who are almost live-in friends; the Mowgli poolboy; everything looks so peaceful when – out of the surreal blue – a giant boulder rolls down the hillside into the pool, cracking the mosaic hearts and announcing, as firmly as the dinner gong, the hour for apocalypse.


Metaphor as farce is a nice beginning: the waters are about to break in every way. Gal Dove has it too good; his nemesis comes rattling out at him like a monster from the deep, scripted for obscenity. Every four-letter word that Kingsley didn’t use 15 years ago as Gandhi has been saved for him here. And the movie has a captivating tendency to purvey dreams, reveries and nightmares as if they were an extension of reality: broad-daylight psychic asides. A heart-shaped smoke ring blown by Dove ‘becomes’ a vision of intertwined lovers floating Chagall-like in a night sky. The picnic table in the middle of an unidentified pampas which is visited by a dark-furred, rifle-toting rabbit-man on a horse – the movie’s absurdist bogey leitmotif – is Dove’s nightmare, but it is shot like a slice of life. (Lest we doubt that Glazer is a Luis Bunuel fan, his next project is a collaboration with Bunuel’s latter-day scenarist-in-chief Jean-Claude Carriere.


Before Gal agrees, reluctantly, to the bank heist the two men must quarrel to the killing point. The rage of the movie’s first act is elemental, hilarious. Logan’s strategy is to deride and conquer. At moments of high dementia Ben Kingsley’s bald skull with its serpent-fissure veins bobs and juts, spitting out so many high-decibel ‘Fucks’ to the second that he could be a cobra with Tourrettes Syndrome. It must end in blood and does. As Don lies bleeding he offers one last deep-probe insult by whispering a message of love – old love, complicit love – to the wife of Gal’s friend: the perfect poisonous bequest.


The second act in London establishes a new unease among thieves – Where is Don? Asks heist supremo Ian McShane of Winstone who has arrived alone and prevaricates nervously by the minute. At the same time the film opens up into weirder, grander dimensions. Since the bank vault must be approached underwater, we embark on a crosscutting sequence between the surreal antics of ‘now’- rockblasting drills roaring subaqueously, stripped-for-work Gal uterinely bobbing and weaving - and memory-splinters of ‘then,’ which reconstruct Don Logan’s gory end. The rhyme is deliberate. Both events are part of Gal’s Caesarean rebirth into a way of life he thought he had shuffled off but which instead keeps shuffling horribly after him.


The movie’s final scenes return to a kind of realism, but by now we distrust the everyday. The story’s immersion in elements of memory, water, reverie and the unconscious have made us see in the ‘real’ only the lurking – and laughing – oneiric.


SEXY BEAST has flaws, notably a sense that two almost-separate stories have been knitted together. But it far outstrips the dilettantism of recent British gangster cinema. Though faithful to the notion of criminals as a ‘separate society’, its gangsters don’t have the aren’t-they-funny archness of the Thatcher Hangover style. The characters more resemble revenants from classic revenge drama, victim-pawns of a capricious destiny, people whose will to survive or destroy is demon-driven, arbitrary, poetic.


Glazer, who was initially to have directed GANGSTER NO 1, has the measure of Mellis and Scinto’s ornamental nihilism. Almost every shot is a subtle disruption, re-ordering the movie’s perspective, forcing us to ask new questions. The film is also about characters asking questions of themselves, looking in life’s mirror (literally in one funny-unnerving scene of Kingsley rehearsing threats in the bathroom), wondering how much they love or hate what they see, asking themselves what can be done about it.


Nothing is the almost certain answer. Gal Dove’s rebirth is a joke in the form of a dream in the form of a nightmare. He ends up where he was before, a mildly traumatized retiree in sunny southern Europe. The rabbit-man – connecting Almeria to ALICE IN WONDERLAND – is still swimming around in his unconscious, laughing from the depths of the rockdrilling waters that somehow flow from an under-repair Spanish swimming pool to an under-invasion London bankvault. We are safe from our demons nowhere, however safe we may be from physical danger. Gal Dove has made an accommodation, incorporating such comforts and mod cons as he can, with fate and mortality. Which is perhaps all that any of us can do.










©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.