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Lap Me Up: The Surrealism Of Sexy Beast At 20
Thomas H. Sheriff , January 17th, 2020 11:29

Jonathan Glazer made a hot, high-stakes Geezer film in Sexy Beast – but the film's legacy 20 years on is more interesting when considering its background in surrealism, finds Thomas H. Sheriff

Gal Dove is a happy man. His days as a grimy London safecracker are over. England? “It’s a dump,” says Gal, played by a drawling Ray Winstone. “What a shithole. What a toilet. Every cunt with a long face shuffling about, moaning, all worried. No thanks, not for me.” He’s retired, living in Spain with his wife Deedee, spending his days sunbathing in his tiny tangerine-coloured trunks. That’s how we find him at the start of Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer’s first, and arguably best, film. “Oh yeah. Bloody ‘ell. I’m sweatin’ in ‘ere. Roastin’. Boilin’. Bakin’. Swelterin’,” Gal coos like a pig in muck. “Who wouldn’t lap this up? It’s ridiculous. Tremendous. Fantastic. Fan-dabby-dozy…tastic.”

The opening scene of Sexy Beast encapsulates everything great about the film – humour, style, even plot. Gal shuffles around his pool to the tune of the punkish, groovy bass riff of the Stranglers’ ‘Peaches’. The joke is twofold: there’s the Stranglers’ comedy, satirising the hypermasculine men who go to beaches to ogle women (easy applied to British expats in Spain), and then there’s Jonathan Glazer’s comedy, sarcastically suggesting that Gal’s pink, sweaty body is one of those “peaches” (props to Winstone for going along with the joke). A freeze-frame of his stumbling legs and crotch, accompanied by the film’s title in pop-art pink lettering, underscores the point with laugh-out-loud archness.

But something is stirring in the Spanish mountains. A boulder is dislodged and rolls down the hills, picking up speed, finally hurtling inches past Gal’s face and crashing into his pool. It’s a moment of pure bizarre randomness – unforeseeable, inexplicable. It’s a twist of fate, an act of God, a force majeure – and it’s come with the express purpose of fucking up Gal Dove’s day. The same could be said of Don Logan, Gal’s psychotic ex-partner in crime played explosively by Ben Kingsley, who storms back into Gal’s life to demand he does one last job. Sure enough, Don and the boulder will turn out to be curiously linked.

“Surreal” is a term often tossed at films – usually as soon as they have any dream scenes. Yes, Sexy Beast has its share of dreams and hallucinations, but its links to the surrealist tradition run far deeper. The hyperreal characters set against hazy Spanish landscapes immediately evoke Dalí; frequent underwater shots give bodies a dreamlike sense of movement; faces are often lit so their surroundings are pitch black, as if they’ve come out of sheer nothingness, drawing on the concept of “l’informe” (formlessness) which the surrealists championed. Internal monologues heard in voiceover drift into spoken dialogue, heightening the sense of madness and drawing attention to the film’s unreality. Even the dialogue, occasionally slips into near-Dadaistic non sequiturs – in Don’s spewing of obscenities (“you fuckin’ Dr White honkin' jam-rag fuckin’ spunk-bubble!”) and in Gal’s tenderness towards Deedee (“I love you like a rose loves rainwater; like a leopard loves its partner in the jungle…”). It also eschews any notion of good taste in a way the surrealists would be proud of, achieving that delightfully rhythmic swearing which only the British seem capable of.

Surrealism and crime films have been bedfellows since both of their infancies: Louis Feuillade’s landmark crime serial Les Vampires was a favourite of André Breton, father of the surrealist movement. The connection between crime and surrealism is natural, since films in which the protagonists are criminals instantly require at least some realignment of the everyday, conscious morality. A temporary disengagement of rigorous, rational moral thought allows the viewer to engage meaningfully with objectively reprehensible protagonists, such as Vito Corleone, Michael Corleone, Henry Hill, Bonnie and Clyde.

This deconstruction of values is exactly what surrealism attempts – like the Man Ray photographof a model’s contorted hands, feet and buttocks, drily titled ‘Prayer’, in which submissive religious piety gives way to the immediacy of the strange and the sexual. Rational values (theft is bad, murder is worse, etc.) are what our waking societies are based on, so once they’re uprooted, it’s a short step to slip into aspects of the unconscious and the unusual. This might explain why The Sopranos has so many dream scenes.

But the surrealism in Sexy Beast isn’t just stylistic. It’s in the film’s narrative, themes, characterisations – in its very DNA – and it’s there with a purpose: rewriting the rules of the gangster film. Or, to be specific, the geezer film. Gangster films are expensive suits, executions in Cadillacs, Robert De Niro, Catholic guilt, Cuban cigars. Geezer films are dogs on chains, thumpings in back alleys, Ray Winstone, Cockney rage, Marlboro reds. These hallmarks are present in Sexy Beast, but they’re strangely askew. Almost every character is as emblematic of London as jellied eels, but most of the action takes place in Spain. The setup – a retired thief is pressured into doing one last job – is as familiar as they come, but this is no common or garden heist film. It doesn’t hinge on the robbery; it’s the conflict preceding the robbery which provides the crux. Ray Winstone, ever the snarling brute, inhabits a character who is passive, ineffectual, even meek. It’s the shorter, slighter Ben Kingsley – the same Ben Kingsley who won an Oscar playing Gandhi – who shouts and spits, bursting with vitriol. This isn’t a geezer film with a couple of dream scenes thrown in – it’s a film entirely built from a very strange ground. This subversion of expectations – the submission of form to informe, of sense to nonsense – is quintessentially surreal.

These inversions serve to realign traditional morals one step further than most crime films. Audiences are used to swapping out their value systems for ones based on honour, camaraderie, and the thrill of the chase (“the sheer fuckoffness of it all,” as Don eloquently puts it). But the systems at work in Sexy Beast are bigger, more elemental than that. Even before Don arrives, the end of Gal’s idyllic life appears in his dreams as a demonic rabbit holding an Uzi, in a hallucinatory scene that’s Lynch by way of Corbucci. Through the the introduction of the unconscious and fantastical, Don Logan becomes an almost supernatural, divine force – a hellish rabbit, a boulder falling from the heavens – and Gal is forced to resist him.

This is the film’s essential conflict, which is fundamentally about power. Don uses each character’s past against them, hurting them with emotional blackmail. He’s horrifically misogynistic, using patriarchal structures to shame and degrade women. He forces people to accept his money, dominating them with economic superiority. He’s physically violent in an almost casual way. These power structures extend to the wider criminal underworld, too: Ian McShane’s coldly threatening Teddy Bass (known as “Mr Black Magic”, another nod to the paranormal) has seemingly immense status, placing him at least a couple of rungs above Don. He doesn’t give “one solitary fuck” about Don, because he doesn’t have to. His power is so extreme that his apparent kink is to become the traditional antithesis of powerful: he gets off on being on his knees, receiving violent anal sex.

All this feeds into the simple, age-old struggle: the powerless against the powerful; the bullied against the bullies. Gal is passive in the face of Don Logan because he doesn’t have the means to be anything else – Don holds all the cards. The surrealism in Sexy Beast heightens this dynamic, clearing away archetypes and turning Don into a sheer force of nature. We align ourselves with Gal in the same way we align ourselves with the civilians when we watch Godzilla, or with Ishmael when we read Moby Dick. Gal is at the mercy of power far larger than himself; all he can do is try to survive, keep his quiet life intact. It’s a theme as old as storytelling itself, but in 2000, Glazer got there through the back door of the avant-garde. And it’s all so seamless that it doesn’t even feel avant-garde – it’s funny and exciting, never stuffy or laboured.

20 years later, Sexy Beast remains something of an oddity. It has a solid reputation in the Geezer Canon, but stands separate from the slew of fast-talking, no-feeling thrillers which make up the expanded Guy Ritchieverse. It offers a deconstruction of the genre, which is then reconstructed to marry the unhinged, convulsive beauty of surrealism with sturdy, universal storytelling. Sexy Beast has lost none of its freshness or verve. It’s exhilarating – a lightning flash of originality. It’s ridiculous. Tremendous. Fantastic. Fan-dabby-dozy-tastic. Who wouldn’t lap it up?