…to the version that began to peek out 20 years ago…Birth (’04), Under the Skin (’13) and The Zone of Interest (’23).
Eight days ago my heart sank when it was announced that Justin Chang, a Millennial wokester with a particular focus on ethnic representation, will be elbowing aside New Yorker critic Anthony Lane, a young boomer whose writings have never seemed to follow woke doctrine.
I almost wept this morning when I re-read Lane’s 23-year-old review of Jonathan Glazer‘s Sexy Beast. It’s very sad to consider that this kind of writing (aloof wit, verve, panache) is, in a sense, being put out to pasture, at least within The New Yorker‘s movie realm…I just feel gutted.
Lane‘s “Exiles,” posted on 6.19.21: “You will be relieved to learn that the title of Jonathan Glazer‘s Sexy Beast is dripping with irony. How could it be otherwise, given that the movie hails from England? Take Gal (Ray Winstone), charring himself like a fat salmon beside his Spanish pool. Gal used to be a London crook, and his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), used to be big in porno. These days, they have nothing to do but drink and dine with their good friends Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White), who share the leathery look of those who have weathered enough for one lifetime.
“But here comes trouble, in a neat, fast package: Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a man whose mere name, like that of Keyser Söze, is enough to bring any civilized company to a lurching halt.
“Don wants Gal to return to London for the sake of one more job. You would think that the heist itself, a raid on a safe-deposit vault, would be the core of the plot. Not so. What rouses Sexy Beast, against all expectations, is the central, Iago-like act of persuasion: one scene after another, in which Don sits or stalks around Gal’s villa and rails away at him, as if to show not that Gal’s defenses are breachable but that they were hardly defenses in the first place…just patches of softness, the pressure points of a sad slacker. The trailer now showing in theatres presents Sexy Beast as a thriller, which means that moviegoers may be heading for a surprise; what they are about to witness resembles nothing so much as Harold Pinter in a really foul mood.
“I have never been scared of Ben Kingsley before. There has always been a tight, unyielding spookiness in him, and his pragmatist’s suspicion of the sentimental made him the most affecting presence in Schindler’s List, but he seldom had the chance to intimidate. Now his time has come, and you sit there staring in petrifaction at this human cobra.
“If Kingsley took the part as a means of laying to rest the goodness that he shouldered for his most famous role, the plan worked: Don Logan is the anti-Gandhi. He sees the worst in people and goes for it with his teeth. He is wiry and bald, with a goatee that you would be extremely foolish to laugh at; even our first sight of him, as he marches through an airport holding his jacket up as if on an invisible hanger, heralds a furious precision. ‘How was your flight?’ Aitch asks, as they sit around dumbly with drinks. ‘It was all right,’ Don replies — an innocent line delivered with such a poisonous snap that I actually flinched in the darkness and let out a wounded yelp. To Don, everything said by anyone else is a naked insult, a badly coded insult, or a mistake that needs correcting.
“To say that Sexy Beast is profane is like pointing out that Lawrence of Arabia is a little on the sandy side. You would need shorthand to reproduce the full, polluted flow of Don’s expletives, and yet this is not a filthy film; instead, it feels marmoreal, with Glazer playing the hot rages of his heroes off against the cool, hard surroundings of kitchen and pool. As Don says of his intended crime, ‘It’s not about the money. It’s about the sheer fuckoffness of it all, am I right?’
“Well, you are right, Don, but, at the risk of upsetting you, the way you talk about it is considerably more fuckoff than the deed itself. In fact, the whole movie slackens when the action shifts to the Old Country. Beaten down by the bickering, Gal flies to London to help out with the robbery; it’s a cunning affair, but although it comes with a new trick—the boys break into the vault underwater, in goggles and trunks—you feel something stale and diluted leak into the story. “England,” as Gal picturesquely puts it, “is a toilet,” and, like him, I couldn’t wait to clamber out and head back to the sun.
“Spain seems to calm Glazer down; his compositions are clean and correct out there, whereas the main effect of the flashy London scenes is to confirm that, in common with most young directors these days, he trained in commercials. His producer is Jeremy Thomas, whose résumé includes collaborations with Bertolucci, David Cronenberg, and Nicolas Roeg, and there is a sliver of early Roeg, of Performance and Walkabout, in Glazer’s smartness, and in his careful crazing of smooth surfaces. If he can stay away from his homeland, he should do well; I like to think of him being tempted by California—not by the beckoning forefingers of major studios but by the slow burn of the light. (‘Baking,’ as Gal would say, pronouncing neither the ‘k’ nor the ‘g’…ba’in’.)
“Expatriation is the great underused topic of our restive age; the British, when they move abroad, are distilled into odd parodies of themselves—at once bitter and nostalgic, breeding little warrens of joyless hedonists—and one longs to know whether Americans suffer the same fate. I could name some ideal neighbors for Gal and Deedee: a loving couple from New Jersey, dreaming of decency and contentment, with a few old habits to kick. A Mr. and Mrs. Soprano.”