Movies

20 Years Ago, 'Sexy Beast' Reinvented Ben Kingsley and Gave Us One of Cinema's Greatest Villains

In the British heist film Sexy Beast, the buildup to the arrival of a feared English crook is almost as terrifying as his presence. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 20 years ago this month, begins as the story of the carefree Gal Dove, who lives peacefully in a remote Spanish villa with his gorgeous wife after retiring from lowdown criminal work. But it all comes crashing down for Gal, his wife, and their two best friends when the very mention of a man named Don Logan sends the quartet into an emotional spiral, as if they’ve all been told of the death of a relative. They don’t quite know how to proceed, knowing that he’s heading for their deserted location. And when he arrives, he’s played by Ben Kingsley, playing a role unlike any he had played before. 

In the year 2000, Ben Kingsley was a celebrated actor, but he wasn’t the obvious pick to play someone so terrifying that even the hint of his presence sends others into a despairing tailspin. Though he’d racked up plenty of credits, Kingsley was known best for two major film roles: his Academy Award-winning turn as the nonviolent Mahatma Gandhi in the 1982 film Gandhi, and his supporting role as the Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s epic Holocaust drama Schindler’s List. Though Kingsley had also appeared in films such as James Toback’s Bugsy as the mobster Meyer Lansky, his work was largely defined in the late 20th century by those avatars of human courage in the face of great adversity.

Sexy Beast turns Kingsley’s presence on his bullet-like bald head, and turns him into the face of great adversity. We don’t meet Don Logan for the first 20 minutes of the 90-minute heist drama, which begins with an all-too-familiar trope of crime stories: the retired criminal who’s about to be roped in for One Last Job. That criminal here is Gal (Ray Winstone), a heavily tanned Brit living the good life with his gorgeous wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman). They and their best friends Jackie (Julianne White) and Aitch (Cavan Kendall) don’t do much aside from lie by their pools, get a healthy amount of sun, drink, and dance. Until, that is, Aitch gets an offscreen call from Don Logan, who soon arrives to request – well, demand – Gal’s services in an attempt to break through a bank vault in London. 

To say that Don is persistent is to understate the issue. He radiates intensity — it’s not just that the other actors are effectively able to communicate through body language that this guy makes them all extremely uncomfortable. It’s that Kingsley’s surprisingly, disturbingly capable of using his whole body, from his eyes to his feet, as a weapon, as much as he uses words as a force of attack. But what may stand out most of all is the dull sharpness of Kingsley’s voice. The language of Sexy Beast is intensely profane; the film’s producer, Jeremy Thomas, once recounted that the film “…has something like 300 uses of the word ‘cunt’, and 400 ‘fucks’”. 

No one’s more profane or motormouthed than Don, even before he begins laying into Gal for having the gall to reject the job. Just consider this brief bit of dialogue that takes up no more than five seconds, from writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto: “Retired? Fuck off, you’re revolting. Look at your suntan, it’s leather, it’s like leather, man, your skin. We could make a fucking suitcase out of you. Like a crocodile, fat crocodile, fat bastard. You look like fucking Idi Amin, you know what I mean?” Kingsley, in this scene and throughout his 30 or so minutes of screen time, stalks back and forth, like a desperate, wildly unfiltered predator on the prowl. There’s the meme-able stuff you may have seen online. There’s the way Kingsley shouts “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” to almost literally shove Gal into doing the job, or conversely, shouting “No, no, no, no, no, no!” in response to the perceived offense from Gal in rejecting it.

But even in these loud, uncomfortable moments, it’s just as striking to watch Kingsley use his body as a tool as it is to hear his voice get more aggravated. Each time he emphasizes the details of the job – the name Gal has to use, the hotel where he has to meet up with the gang – he jabs his whole body at Gal. It’s a striking contrast: Kingsley, even in this get-up, doesn’t really look like he could hold his own in the ring against the more hirsute Winstone. But Gal looks meek, embarrassed, and over-cautious as Don yells, “Yes, you will! Yes, Roundtree! Yes, Grosvenor!” Each of those words is accompanied by Don’s whole body propelling forward, punctuating each bark, each order. Here and elsewhere, Kingsley is like an accomplished concert pianist, and this film is his symphony of profane, untrammeled fury.

Throughout, Sexy Beast exudes a strange energy exemplified by its first-time director, Jonathan Glazer. At the time, the helmer was known for working on commercials as well as music videos like the 90s-era classic “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai. Sexy Beast announced him as a talent to watch; his follow-up films Birth and Under the Skin, both wildly different from each other and from this one, cement him as one of the most haunting filmmakers of his generation, completely uncategorizable. Each of his entries are distinctive and unforgettable; the story for Sexy Beast may be slight, but each shot is carefully composed, even (and especially) those framing Don as the true central point of the story.

Sexy Beast is a movie that flits in and out of different genres without blinking. It’s a heist movie, but really only in theory; the heist itself takes up about five or six minutes, and there’s never a single implication that Gal or the other criminals are in danger of being caught. This isn’t a film where the criminals outrun the cops; the few cops we do see are easily slipped by through means of brute intelligence. That’s due to the man overseeing the heist, the boss behind attack dogs like Don Logan: Teddy Bass, portrayed by Ian McShane in a role that essentially netted him the career-altering role of Al Swearengen on HBO’s Deadwood. Where Don is outwardly violent and scary, Teddy displays an air of jocularity with Gal. Teddy stays in London, where Gal arrives only after he, his wife, Jackie, and Aitch have all let their tempers win the day and brutally murder Don, burying his body underneath Gal’s pool. (Thus, Gal is only at the job to maintain appearances and hope to be off the hook for Don’s death.)

The tension of Sexy Beast is derived by Don, often by his absence. First, the question is what will happen when Don arrives at Gal’s hacienda to wreak havoc. Then, the question is if Gal will be found out for Don’s death by the smiling Teddy. Each time Teddy shows up on screen, he doesn’t have to raise his voice – he’s mostly all laughs, even as he pierces right through Gal’s explanation that Don definitely made it back to the airport and even called when he landed. McShane only gets to hint at the profane way he had with language on Deadwood near the end, when Teddy reveals that he knows something happened to Don, and that Gal had something to do with it. “You see, if I cared, Gal…if I fucking cared. If I gave a solitary fuck about Don…” He doesn’t have to complete the sentence, because Gal knows how it would end otherwise.

McShane’s innate intensity is thanks largely to his bright blue eyes – the heavyset way his eyelids hover over his eyes is enough to communicate menace without a ton of dialogue. (It’s perhaps ironic that David Milch, the man behind Deadwood, watched this movie and saw McShane as Al Swearengen, considering that the actor who unleashes loads of profanities is Kingsley.) Yet even as Teddy hovers over the second half of the film like a grim, well-dressed angel of death, Sexy Beast is far from a common heist film, barely even seeming similar to Guy Ritchie’s pumped-up heist movies of the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

If Sexy Beast could be successfully categorized, it’d be as psychological horror. We don’t know what it is that Don did in the past – except for “insinnuendos” regarding his relationship with Jackie years ago – to so profoundly scare Gal and company. We just know that Don’s bad news, an expectation both successfully created by the other actors and executed upon by Kingsley himself, whose take on the bad guy is so vicious that he all but spits in the face of legitimate death being brought upon him.

Since Sexy Beast was first unveiled, Kingsley’s career has had some misses, but plenty of major success previously unseen in the period when he was known more for placid portrayals. Though he lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (to Jim Broadbent in Iris, a fine performance, but a mystifying victory), Kingsley would go on to make risky choices in other excellent films like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, House of Sand and Fog, one of the few truly great Marvel movies (Iron Man 3, of course), and the Laika animated film The Boxtrolls.

What these films traffic on is what Jonathan Glazer was first able to work with: Ben Kingsley’s incomparable ability to dive into a character that seems entirely wrong for his presence. A terrifying, Cockney-accented criminal hardened beyond his years, someone so scary as to put the fear of God in the protagonists, runs counter to the man who literally played Gandhi, a role that defined the first act of his film career. But Kingsley’s ability to surprise is what revealed him to be perfect for the role of a lifetime. Don Logan is someone you’d want to avoid on an airplane, or at a restaurant, and you’d never want him to visit you at home. It’s testament to Ben Kingsley’s remarkable work that he’s able to convince you of this fact within seconds of his first appearance. He’s a beast.

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