The British born director Jonathan Glazer has earned a formidable auteur reputation on the back of only three films since 2000 and a storied apprenticeship directing music videos for Radiohead, UNKLE, Jamiroquai, Massive Attack, and Blur, all bands whose lyrics and soundscapes seem hard-wired for Glazer’s distinct visual palette of hard geometrical lines, hot colors, fluid long takes, and a marked interest in unconscious surreal symbolism.
Aside from his visual prowess, part of the excitement over Glazer’s career has been his chameleon slink through disparate genres, while leaving his own distinct stamp on the product. His debut, Sexy Beast, appears to fit snugly into the confines of the cockney gangster flick, until you delve a little deeper, and realize it has more in common with the transgressive lineage of Donald Cammell’s and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, as opposed to Guy Ritchie’s winking, over-caffeinated “lad” movies. Actually, the film Sexy Beast has the most in common with is Roman Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac with its abrasive, violent, foul-mouthed gangster who stampedes into a couple’s secluded Mediterranean castle and wreaks existential havoc – but more on Polanski later.
Before we immerse ourselves in Glazer’s smashing debut, we need to take a look at what he did after Sexy Beast to gain a true appreciation of its slinky majesty.
Glazer’s second film was 2004’s Birth starring Nicole Kidman, in which the sophomore director really let his surrealist leanings show by teaming up with Bunuel’s screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carriere. Birth may be chilly, ambiguous, and shorn of narrative connective tissue, but it’s also generically placeable, as a proto-remake of Rosemary’s Baby -- from Nicole Kidman’s Mia Farrow mimicking haircut, to the languorous takes of old-money New York apartment buildings and hallways, to the paranormal plot, and the uncomfortable sexuality. And Birth, like Polanski’s film, is far more interested in urban female psychic disintegration than horror. The dead husband in Birth returning in the body of a ten-year old boy serves the same purpose as Satan’s Child in Rosemary’s Baby. They are metaphors for a fracturing female unconscious boiling over into physical space—red herrings for viewers on the hunt for jump scares.
Glazer’s latest film, 2014’s Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, was his most audacious and defiant stripping away of character, narration, motivation, and conventional establishing aesthetics, while still wearing the genre shell of Nicolas Roeg’s Man Who Fell to Earth, albeit with a fatalistic bent and sex change. Skin was also Glazer’s most critically acclaimed film to date with critics fully latching onto his raft of surreal and avant-garde techniques deployed to express the blooming consciousness of ScarJo’s predatory alien. But there’s a hitch: the inside of ScarJo’s mind looked and felt a lot like Catherine Deneuve’s repressed London hairdresser in Polanski’s 1965 minimalist psycho-thriller Repulsion, and both films end on similar notes of schizophrenia, murderous rage, and ultimate loss of identity. It’s as if when Glazer has “post-Beast” surrealist dreams, he dreams of Roman Polanski’s early movies.
Beyond Polanski, this quick detour through Glazer’s filmography illustrates that although he may genre-jump, his core narrative principle doesn’t change. All his films are squarely in the surrealist tradition of placing the viewer directly into the main character’s fractured mind. But it’s not the only surrealist technique Glazer has up his sleeve. All his movies are “visitation” dramas, a hallmark of the absurdist theatrical tradition stretching from Beckett to Sartre to Harold Pinter and Dennis Potter, and of course, Roman Polanski. The “visitation” drama explores the inner space of a pathologically anxious protagonist in such a subjective manner that we begin to wonder whether the events portrayed on stage or screen are actually happening, or are they elaborate hallucinations?
For example, in Glazer’s Birth, we wonder: Has Nicole Kidman’s deceased husband actually been reincarnated in the body of a ten-year-old by or is Kidman’s character suffering a nervous breakdown because she’s about to remarry and never stopped loving her dead husband? The timing couldn’t be more right for hallucination. The boy appears the night Kidman accepts her new lover’s proposal.
Over his ensuing films, Glazer may have refined the particulars of his brand of psycho-surrealist visitation drama, but the roots were already apparent in Sexy Beast, which makes it not only one the finest British gangster films ever made, but also among the most sneakily subversive.
“…Bloody Hell. I’m sweatin’ here. Roastin’. Boilin’. Bakin’. Swelterin’. It’s like a sauna. Furnace. You could fry an egg on my stomach. Who wouldn’t lap this up?”
Says Gal Dove – the protagonist of Sexy Beast – in voice-over, as he rests poolside, reclined on a blindingly white lounge chair, and sweating profusely. The opening images evoke a Helmut Newton photo shoot in Costa del Sol invaded by a burly, teak-tanned Ray Winstone, an incongruity which allows Glazer to lay down the gauntlet of his anti-genre intentions. We may be in the same topographical terrain as Stephen Frears’ The Hit, but even that bold film didn’t have the audacity to linger on Ray Winstone’s ample girth hugged by a yellow Speedo.
Gal slowly rises from the chair, heads to the inground pool to cool off, and the song “Peaches” by The Stranglers, replaces his voice-over, although the lyrics sound like a continuation of his inner monologue:
“…I got that notion, girl, that you got some suntan lotion in that bag of yours. Spread it over my peeling skin, baby. That feels real good.”
The Newton ambience is invaded by an enormous boulder – an elemental force out of a Dali or Magritte painting – which rolls down the hill, crashes into Gal’s backyard, and misses him by mere inches, ultimately plunging into his azure inground pool, cracking the bottom tiles and splashing azure water in every direction.
And a note on this boulder. Most critics and film buffs understand it as a none too subtle portent of danger, but it’s important to remember that the boulder misses Gal. It may be a warning, but it foreshadows not only Gal’s ultimate survival, but that the ominous sign may not solely be meant for him.
The omens continue into the evening, when Gal is nearly ignited in a ball of fire, while trying to start up the barbeque, after describing his former home of London in Hellish textures:
“People say don’t you miss it, Gal? What, England? Nah. Fucking place. It’s a dump. Don’t make me laugh. Grey. Grimy. Sooty. What a shithole. What a toilet.”
Gal’s near immolation doesn’t put a dent in another night of leisure, spent in the company of his former porn-star wife Deedee, their best friends Jackie and Aitch, and revolving around alcohol, gluttony, and dancing to Henry Mancini’s “Lujon”. These magical, Edenic evenings, which climax with Gal and Deedee kissing as they float over the city, carry a head-long subjective charge, a deliberate effect of Glazer’s technique:
“I tried to shoot it, as if Ray Winstone’s character had shot it, kind of like holiday snaps, just so simple; when his wife comes in, it’s supposed to be curvaceous and fantastical.”
The next morning, Gal, Aitch, and Gal’s teenaged poolboy-surrogate son named Enrique, go rabbit hunting in the Spanish desert. Aitch’s gun fails while the rabbit is in his sights, as does Enrique’s, allowing the prey to scamper off. The scene may strike the viewer as a casual throwaway, a quick comedic jab, but it’s functioning in the unconscious dream register as a loss of potency. These former hard men have gotten fat, lost their skills, and are turning into decadent bronzed specimens in the Spanish sun, much like the bourgeois gentlemen in Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or Exterminating Angel, who exist merely to consume.
At dinner that same night, the plot kicks in, and the purpose of the first three scenes slot into place. Gal, Deedee, Aitch and Jackie, are in purgatory, but a particular vision of Hell’s waiting room borrowed from Sartre’s No Exit, in which we can never shake off our past sins, because other people know about them, and we are forced to see ourselves reflected in their eyes. Our foursome may have prayed they outran their collective London pasts, but they are about to learn what Sartre memorably penned: “Hell is other people.”
In the case of Sexy Beast, that hell is one particular person – Don Logan – who has called Jackie and Aitch to instruct them to pick him up at the airport tomorrow morning, because he’s coming in from London to recruit the retired Gal for one last big job. Gal tells the group he’s going to turn down Don’s offer, but we can tell from everyone’s downcast eyes and trembling lips that Don isn’t going to accept “no.” Not only is Don’s arrival imminent, but his looming presence causes the film to dive deeper in Gal’s subjectivity.
With the film’s first dream sequence. And in fine Freudian analytic form, the contents of Gal’s nightmare recap his day. He’s in the desert, seated at a restaurant table eating calamari, when a bestial rabbit-headed creature rides up on a mule, dismounts the animal, scrapes his hoofs against the ground like a charging bull, and pulls an Uzi on Gal, but unlike Gal’s gun – this one works. Our initial impression is that the beast symbolizes Gal’s fear of Don Logan, but as the film progresses, we realize the inside of Gal’s head is a tricky place, and anxiety over a “visitation” from his London past has always been bubbling under his seemingly placid surface.
And on the topic of Don Logan, Glazer shoots his introduction with both surrealist barrels firing, blowing a hole through the first act’s aesthetic within seconds, violently contrasting Gal’s psyche against the sin collector sent down from London. Juxtaposed against the unhurried shots of Spain, Glazer has the camera moving at Don’s frantic marching pace through the airport. Also, unlike the soundtrack to Gal’s psyche, a mélange of ‘80s Brit pop, Henry Mancini, and flamenco guitars, Don’s score comes courtesy of the electronic outfit UNKLE: metallic, abrasive, edgy. However, the greatest surrealist trick Glazer pulls off is the casting of Sir Ben Kingsley as Don Logan. Sir Ben brings his whippet-thin greyhound body and the prior weight of his career defined by his Oscar winning role as Gandhi to bear on Don Logan. And how was Sir Ben able to find his way into Don’s shattered psyche: “I saw Don as someone who was an abused child, who was never held, and went on to abuse others.”
Although attentive viewers shouldn’t be totally shocked Sir Ben had Don Logan lurking inside. He’d already starred in another semi-surreal visitation drama – as a fascist, rapist villain – in Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden. Barring that caveat, Kingsley is an absolute revelation in the role, playing Don as a brutal and wounded man-child with the full backing of a fearsome criminal firm at his back.
It’s also a testament to Kingsley’s unhinged brilliance that he’s able to deliver such a layered performance in a role that’s essentially a symbolic plot device. Don arrives in Spain to instigate the No Exit conflict among our foursome, and over his limited screen time transforms from maniac to mythic crucible each character must overcome to flee purgatory. Immediately upon arriving at Gal’s villa, Don weaponizes each character’s past against them, zeroing on their raw hurts and weaknesses. If that wasn’t enough, Don’s also drenched in homosexual panic and uses his misogyny on steroids to shame every woman unlucky enough to enter his orbit.
As Don’s trip extends into day two, we also begin to realize that Don may be Deedee, Jackie, and Aitch’s ultimate demon, but he isn’t Gal’s. Gal’s sexy beast is actually the man behind Don Logan, the ultra-posh underworld kingpin Teddy Bass (played by Ian McShane). That said, Don does give Gal quite a working over, coming off as a nightmarish human resources director given to extreme acts of verbal and physical cruelty.
But there’s a deeper purpose behind Don’s homosexual panic and demoralizing Deedee and Jackie with his sexual barbs -- they develop and expand his character, especially when contrasted against his boss, Teddy. Don is too crazy to escape middle-management and like any bureaucrat in the firm, he’s addicted to shoving his status in every underling’s face. Teddy, on the other hand, casually known as “Mr. Black Magic,” is so self-assured in his evil that he grasps the tremendous power of appearing weak or submissive, in a way that wouldn’t cross Don’s mind, which only understands brute force.
When we first encounter Teddy, he’s attending an orgy held in a palatial English estate with some serious Eyes Wide Shut vibes. However, Glazer, unlike Kubrick, keeps the sex off-screen and indulges in close-ups of wrinkled bodies and slapping skin, subverting our desire for prurience and voyeurism. Like any surrealist villain, Teddy’s filled with ennui and bored with the festivities – until he spots a business opportunity. The CEO of the most exclusive safe-deposit box firm in London (played by James Fox in another nod to Performance) makes his attraction to Teddy clear, and what does Teddy do – Teddy gets on all fours, receives, and seems positively enervated by the experience. Because unlike Don, Teddy knows the Devil doesn’t make a show of strength, he makes a virtue of manipulation, corrupting others, and wielding his pansexuality. Teddy is the rabbit-eared beast hunting Gal, not his errand boy Don Logan.
Before we realize Teddy’s ultimate meaning to Gal, we’re treated to nearly thirty-minutes of watching the Don Logan method of persuasion. He shouts, he coos, he cajoles, he pees on Gal’s floor, awakens him with a beating, and then complements his former physique. The film’s greatest ironic wink is when Gal tells Don that he’s too out shape and not fit to handle a heavy job, that Gal is right. But that doesn’t matter to either Don – or likely Teddy – what matters is if they can browbeat Gal into saying “yes.”
Shockingly, Gal, manages to break Don. How? Well for starters, Don’s a sloppy demon and handed Gal the tools to tear him in half, plus Gal has more in common with Teddy than it seems. After suffering another beating at Don’s hands, Gal slyly insinuates that Don didn’t come to Spain to convince Gal to take the job, but to confess his love for Jackie – the woman he loves, has always loved, and who “tried to stick her finger up his bum” during sex. At this point Don explodes in rage, unable to believe Gal would use Don’s moment of vulnerability against him and leaves for the airport in a huff. Our foursome thinks they’ve vanquished the demon and can ascend to heaven. Seconds before takeoff, Don lights a cigarette to get himself kicked off the flight. The action seems inscrutable, psychotic, but if you’re Don Logan it makes perfect sense – he wanted one last shot at the Spanish foursome and it was too late for him to exit the plane without creating an extreme diversion. The following scene is also revelatory. While being questioned by airport security, Don tells the officer that he was “molested” and “sexually assaulted” by one of the male steward’s who “touched his front-bottom,” and in response, Don lit a cigarette to calm his nerves. This is textbook displacement. The “molestation” Don refers to is how Gal’s words made him feel, by pointing out his need to be loved. In Don’s mind, Gal did in fact, abuse him. But there’s a deeper subtext here. Don’s fabricated story makes it pretty clear he was actually abused at some point in his youth – note the term “front bottom,” a childish phrase.
When Don returns to Gal’s villa with his “ears burning,” and proceeds to break a glass over Gal’s head, while spewing vile misogynist and homophobic taunts at Deedee, Jackie, and Aitch, a point of no return has been reached. There’s no putting Don’s psychosis back in the bottle. Plus, a shotgun-wielding Deedee has her own plans. And at the moment of highest conflict, Glazer subverts our expectations and ends the scene before it comes full circle.
In an audacious act of narrative ellipsis, we shift to London, which Glazer shoots as Spain’s antithesis: cramped, rainy, the sun blotted out from the sky. The subjective camera follows suit, with delirious, snaking, and jangled compositions reflecting Gal’s nervous dislocation upon returning to Teddy’s territory in order to assume his assigned role in the heist – and more importantly, avoid suspicion over Don’s disappearance.
And Gal has every right to be stressed, because when we finally meet Teddy in the flesh, McShane doesn’t disappoint. Mr. Black Magic is cool professionalism personified, while locking his hollow predator eyes on Gal, and trying to solve the mystery of what happened to Don?
The heist set-piece unfolds in a steam bath and involves drilling through several layers of brick and concrete in order to enter the neighboring safety deposit vault underwater. At this point, when we have several shots of Teddy standing before erupting geysers of steam and smoke while chain-smoking, the hell metaphor has passed into full on metonymy. And right when you think Glazer may have lost his grip by getting too literal, he has another surreal shock in store. The heist turns out to be a narrative afterthought. The tension actually emerges from the drama unfolding in Gal’s mind, because once he starts to descend into the water, the narrative gap of Don’s disappearance bubbles up.
Deedee empties a shotgun blast into Don’s stomach, and another for good measure before the scene ends. In the ultimate irony for Don Logan, he’s summarily dispatched by the women and the man he has mocked for lacking prowess. But Don is a bastard to the final second, using his dying breaths to remind Aitch that he “fucked Jackie,” to which Aitch, Jackie’s husband responds – before cratering in Don’s skull:
“Well, I guess I’ve fucked you now.”
The heist sequence is the pinnacle of Glazer’s surrealist deconstruction of the crime film. The intensity, the suspense doesn’t lie in the action sequence, the real thrill is in the act of remembering. It also reinforces what we’ve begin to realize by now: Deedee, Jackie, and Aitch had to overcome Don to leave purgatory. Gal has to go through Teddy.
Once the heist is completed, Teddy offers to give Gal a ride to the airport, then takes him on a detour to James Fox’s house. Teddy has Gal accompany him upstairs, where he puts a bullet in the back of his former lover and inside man’s skull. Once again, just like Don’s cigarette on the plane, this may seem like a crazy decision, but it makes a bizarre sense, when Teddy turns to Gal and asks again:
“What actually happened to Don?”
Teddy knows Don never made it back to London, knows that Don did board a plane, then got off, and went radio silent. Gal remains resolute in the face of Teddy’s intimidation, staring down his devil’s smoking gun, and maintaining his version of the story. Teddy begrudgingly lowers the weapon, almost respecting Gal’s steadfast refusal to crack.
Before exiting the film, Teddy offers one last glimpse of his true nature. He spares Gal’s life, but whispers in a vile hush:
“If I gave a single, solitary fuck about Don…”
He doesn’t finish his sentence, but we get the gist. Teddy’s incapable of caring about anyone, let alone an unhinged spinning-top subordinate like Don, who he knew was an expendable rabid dog waiting to be taken down. Teddy kicks Gal out of the car, then mentions he’ll have to take a trip down to Spain one day, since it obviously agrees with Gal.
Sexy Beast, like any exercise in studied surrealism, has one last mystery designed to defy notions of narrative closure. The film ends with Gal back in Spain – Orpheus returned home from the underworld – and surrounded by his loved ones. He stares at the recently retiled bottom of his pool, and we hear Don’s voice inside Gal’s head:
“Told you you’d do the job.”
To which Gal responds:
“Well, you were right, Don. But you’re dead.”
The camera then proceeds to plunge into the pool water, through the tiled surface, into a series of tunnels below, and confirming what we expected: the foursome buried Don down there. But Don isn’t alone. The rabbit-headed beast is back. He kicks open Don’s coffin to reveal Sir Ben laying inside, unperturbed by the animal, and dragging off a cigarette.
This unsettling parting image can be read in one of two ways. Teddy isn’t done with Gal, who escaped his clutches this time, and he’s awakening Don to get back to work. However, I think there’s an alternate, maybe more hopeful reading. That just like Gal, Don has retired to sunny Spain, decided to quit the Sexy Beast’s employ, and is remaining unresponsive to Teddy’s command to get up and invade another escapee’s idyllic purgatory.
In an interesting anecdote, Ray Winstone reports that Sexy Beast is one of Steven Spielberg’s top four favorite films and is the reason that he hired Winstone for the last Indiana Jones film. Spielberg’s love for Glazer’s debut makes a strange sense, considering the amount of “visitation” films the elder director has made – look no further than E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind to name a couple.
Spielberg isn’t alone. Even though critics and Glazer himself seem intent on reducing Sexy Beast to apprentice work, others still view it – myself included – as his crowning achievement, and it likely comes down to the perfect marriage of form and content. Glazer’s psycho-surrealism, like David Lynch’s, found its ideal container in crime-noir pastiche, which isn’t a total surprise, considering crime and surrealism have always been natural bedfellows, from Hitchcock hiring Dali to design the dream sequences in Spellbound, to Scorsese’s baroque Christian-infused first-person imagery in Taxi Driver and Casino.
Yet, the biggest unsolved mystery surrounding Sexy Beast isn’t the challenge of deciphering its hidden layers, symbolism, or non-linear story, but in trying to understand why no one in the crime genre has chosen to build upon Glazer’s stunning debut in the past two decades.