Enter Ben Kingsley as Don Logan, a psychopath who's never gotten around to reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. The mere mention of Don's name sends a Keyser Soze shiver up the spines of Gal, his wife (Amanda Redman) and their fellow English expatriates, Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White). Don's been sent to recruit Gal for a job in London, and to say he won't take no for an answer is to assign him so much more humanity than he in fact has. His head shaved smooth as a bullet, Don would just as soon shoot you as to look at you, but he also likes to talk, and Sexy Beast quickly turns into one of those Pinter-by-way-of-Mamet tÃte-Ã-tÃtes in which it's not so much what the characters say as how they say it. 'Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!' Don shouts in what can only be described as verbal head-butting.
Director Jonathan Glazer, who like so many filmmakers these days comes to us from the worlds of television advertising and music videos, plays it cool through most of the movie, holding the camera still and allowing the actors to work their magic. But he also interjects these stylistic tours de force, some of which work and some of which don't. When Don tells Gal how the job ' an underwater heist, no less ' came about, we're taken through a flashback within a flashback, and although there's no particular reason for doing that, Glazer handles the whole thing with such aplomb that we're put in a forgiving mood. But Gal's nightmares and daymares, as when he gets attacked by an Uzi-toting rabbit, seem at once outlandish and pedestrian. And the movie doesn't need them, anyway. It's sufficiently harrowing whenever Kingsley so much as turns his head or pauses to take in what someone has just foolishly said.
Not that anybody says very much when he's around. They're terrified of him ' of what he might be capable of, with Mob backing. And what's so excruciatingly pleasurable about Sexy Beast is watching Gal and his loved ones try to coax this animal back into the cage. On some level, he's like the world's worst houseguest, and there's a BuÃuelian undercurrent to the scenes where they all sit around pretending everything's fine, normal, sane. None of this would go over with the audience if Kingsley weren't so mesmerizingly threatening. Gone are all traces of Gandhi, which established his career nearly 20 years ago. Only rarely has Kingsley turned those dark eyes, that flat voice and his immense powers of concentration to the dark side ' in the 1982 Pinter adaptation Betrayal, for instance. But maybe he should do so more often.
Ray Winstone was pretty scary himself in Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth, where he played a wife-beating son of a bitch. Here, he's turned himself completely inside out. Gal may have been a sexy beast at one time, but he seems to have left that all behind in England. ('What a toilet,' he says about his mother country.) And now if his past would just stay back there where it belongs. Alas, that's not to be. Both Gal and Sexy Beast seem a little distracted after they arrive in London, although the amazingly dead-eyed Ian McShane shows up as Teddy, the guy calling all the shots. That we're praying Teddy will allow Gal to return to his lovely wife and his lovely life on the Costa del Sol is a tribute to both Winstone's come-what-may charm and to the desire within all of us to spend the rest of our days marinating in the pool and roasting in the sun.
Prolefeed Studios wraps up its months-long documentary series at the Electric Earth CafÃ on Thursday, July 19, with a double-bill consisting of Scoop Perlman's Guide to Art and Joan of Arc, the latter a video recording of the 1999 Bread and Puppet performances at the Barrymore Theatre and Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. The evening begins with an Open Reel Hour at 8 p.m., so bring along those home movies that took on a life of their own, or any other video you'd like to share with the world, as long as it's 10 minutes or less. That gets you in for free. Otherwise, admission is $5.
Scoop Perlman's Guide to Art is a stroll through the wild and woolly world of Wisconsin's outsider artists. It's a projected TV series that, so far, contains two episodes, one on Baraboo's Tom Every, who's been turning scrap metal into scrap-metal art for a number of years, and one on a woman named Nadine Mercil, who makes dolls and dollhouses that would send the folks at Mattel into a coma. Perlman, a local art critic and cartoonist, is a congenial interviewer, allowing these artists to go their own way, which is probably what they were going to do anyway. The result is an enjoyable couple of half-hours that leave more questions than answers.
Every, who also calls himself 'Dr. Evermor,' is the better-known artist. Anyone who's driven by the old Badger Ammunition Plant has seen his swords-into-plowshares creations, which evoke Jules Verne by way of Mad Max. But few will have heard Every's techno-cosmological rap, which marks him as a true outsider. As does his attitude about the possible audience for his work. 'I'd rather have a little old lady in tennis shoes from Nebraska come here,' he says, though the cravat around his neck suggests otherwise. I loved Every's description of the Overlord Master Control Unit, a gargantuan thingamajig that's literally guaranteed to make you smile.
Nadine Mercil is a different kettle of fish altogether. Interviewed in her home, which is crammed with her various paintings and assemblages, Mercil both shuns and longs for success in the official art world, finally shouting, 'I deserve it. I'm good.' Hard to imagine Henry Darger, the glory boy of outsider art, ever saying that. There's a whiff of Darger in Mercil's work, which combines the innocence of childhood with these amazing outbursts of profanity. ('I FUCKED MY FATHER,' one of her assemblages declares.) And somehow it doesn't surprise us when she confirms that she's an alcoholic, which she says wreaks havoc on her work.
I also got an Emily Dickinson vibe off Mercil ' the seeming reclusiveness and the intimacy with death. (She says she'd like to build a mausoleum and surround herself with her 'companions' ' i.e., her work.) And I wished that Perlman had probed deeper into the wellsprings of her art, not that he doesn't try. Directed and edited by Prolefeed founder Brian Standing, Scoop Perlman's Guide to Art takes a somewhat scattershot approach to its subject. For instance, I never did figure out where Mercil lives. But it's nice to know someone's out there on the margins, collecting art and artists that might not otherwise see the light of day.