Rabbit Rides a Pale Horse

Sexy Beast (2000)

Sexy Beast (2000) | FilmFour

In the sweltering Spanish sun, his body glistens—reddened, beads of sweat dripping, clad in just a tight yellow Speedo. He is totally at ease, motionless, reclined. A poolside villa surrounds him, the tile underneath the water christened with two interlocked hearts, as befits his retreat into the quiet freedoms of love. He laps up his sequestered, hedonistic life in the countryside like ambrosia. What more could he need? What more could he steal?

This is the first of many subversions in Sexy Beast (2000), Jonathan Glazer’s debut. This is the place where another heist film would end: the comfortable paradise—the idyllic retreat to a luxurious retirement—staked upon the ill-gotten gains earned from a life of theft. Man overcomes the systems pitted against him—economic, bureaucratic, or otherwise—and can finally live his life in peace. Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) has nothing to overcome in the traditional sense, no material object or state of being that he starts the film without.

What disrupts the peace is entirely entropy: a boulder from the hillside, just behind the property, rolling down and narrowly sailing past Gal’s head, into the pool. The peril only lasts a moment, but the implication hangs: what will soon come to disrupt Gal Dove’s hard-earned solitude is a force beyond his control.

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The Stranglers’ “Peaches” is, intentionally, a very goofy song. Its slinking bass riff prowls in tandem with its salacious, sun-scorched narrator, hounding a beach like a sex-starved animal. Vocalist Hugh Cornwell monologues in ridiculous turns of phrase; his howling swoons over each woman passing by take on the effect of a Tex Avery supercut. Lyrically, its closest peer is something like Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, in which a lascivious aging man, overcome by “ladies lolling in bathing suits on blankets like a sun-worshippers’ society…delivering their bodies to men’s eyes,” rambles to these women an entire life’s worth of his carnal exploits and pitch-black stories of his friends’ deaths—ludicrous until it doubles back into unusual profundity.

In perhaps the most beguiling lines of “Peaches,” Cornwell and the band’s backing vocalists sing:

Will you just take a look over there
(Where?)
(There)
Is she tryin’ to get outta that cli-tar-es?
Liberation for women
That’s what I preach
(Preacher man)

Putting aside the spelling and enunciation of the concrete-heavy euphemism (allegedly, claimed by the band to be a French word for “bathing suit,” despite no French speaker agreeing), this is the point where “Peaches” tips over into full on tongue-in-cheek absurdity. Between Cornwell’s staccato delivery of each syllable and his narrator’s immediate attempt to call his objectification an act of women’s liberation, this moment becomes the song’s clearest tell. If you hadn’t caught on to the track—and its depictions of heterosexual male lust—being a joke before, you will here.

“Peaches” plays over our introduction to Gal, and it, too, is one of Glazer’s first clues about how the film swerves from its peers. In a sea of heist films driven by masculine posturing, Glazer uses this song to illustrate an alternate view of hypermasculinity—a farce, over-exaggerated, almost cartoonishly brusque. The point comes to a head as Gal shakily rises from his pool chair, camera fixed at waist level, and freezes on his Speedo-covered crotch at the title card—emblazoned in hot pink. Cornwell, his vocals ever ballooning in overblown delivery, yells out, “Oh shit!” The film, Glazer has immediately telegraphed, is a jab against preconceived notions of masculinity.

This makes sense, after all, if we see gender itself as an inherently ridiculous construct. It’s an empty canvas on which arbitrary rules and structures and expectations are placed. There’s comfort to be found in how you find meaning within it; but, in viewing it from the outside—as a concept by which to define others—the act of judging another’s gender as if grading a performance is an outlandish prospect.

Glazer begins here—with Gal and with “Peaches”—to preempt the outrageous extremes of masculinity ahead, undercutting them as the caricatures of gender they truly are.

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Jonathan Glazer is not a strict genre director, often working in deconstructions or abstractions of traditional film forms. Yet each of his films is an act of genre erosion: in Birth (2004), the psychological thriller; in Under the Skin (2013), otherworldly body horror. Perhaps most instructive to understanding Sexy Beast is Under the Skin, in particular—a film that begins with abstracted stretches of an alien wearing a conventionally feminine skin in order to feed on sexually-driven men, only to morph into an even looser narrative about the self-reflexive awakenings women face with their own bodies, and the very real threats their bodies are subjected to in a patriarchal society. Stylistically and structurally, Under the Skin and Sexy Beast couldn’t be more different—one at least partially grounded in traditional exposition and setting, the other awash in long periods of minimal dialogue and expressionistic empty voids. But each film, in the specific generic rhetorics in which Glazer chooses to work, is a conceptual deconstruction of how gender factors into archetypical frameworks.

Here, it seems no accident that Glazer begins our film with a man named Gal—a construction that, itself, upends the notion of our protagonist being a perfect image of unfiltered machismo. We’re presented with a man who seems comfortable living on his own terms, free from the pressures of what others demand that he be. Everything about his mentality—toward his name, how he carries himself, the company he keeps—indicates a man who feels weightless, unburdened in his place in life, an implication made explicit as Glazer inserts a brief fantastic sequence of Gal and his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), floating above the night landscape.

In Gal’s second scene, he monologues in voiceover about the serenity that retirement in Spain brings him, an imagined dialogue between himself and another: “‘It’s hot?’ Hot? Oh, it’s fucking hot. ‘Too hot?’ Not for me. I love it.” Gal finds his peace of mind where others believe a man like him cannot thrive. It’s almost as if he’s escaped the masculine model that the type of film he’s in dictates. Almost, but not quite yet.

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Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) consumes everything he defiles, verbally or physically. The first utterance of his name in the film is enough to cut a conversation dead, like news of a terminal disease. It’s the kind of hushed, fearful disquiet often lent to the target of a heist in these movies, not—as Sexy Beast depicts him—a member of the heisting crew. 

Don cuts the most imposing profile in the movie, a barrage of expletives and always-simmering rage at the expectation he’ll be refused. Brought to startling form by Kingsley, Don’s every look and move appears as if he’s always readying to throw his next verbal dagger.

Pointedly, the film’s explicitly gendered profanity exits Don’s mouth more than any other character’s. Exiting a taxi from London, his first words find him describing his shirt sticking to him “like a cunt.” His boorish possessiveness over Jackie (Julianne White), a past lover, becomes a perpetual sticking point in his presence, something he lingers on as if he can make a claim to her and her body because of their previous intimacy. In a late scene, Don makes a point of weaponizing gay panic to escape the consequences of his outburst on an airplane, fabricating a story of sexual assault to evade responsibility while directly impugning the character of a man he views as lesser.

But it’s Gal, pointedly, who bears the brunt of Don’s aggression, including his gendered put-downs. His first refusal of Don’s proposition to join the heist is met with Don calling him a “fat cunt,” a term he hurls like a barb at Gal time and time again. Don’s favorite insults all follow this pattern, either calling into question Gal’s sexuality by referring to him as a “ponce,” or ragging on Gal’s appearance as “revolting,” or even repeating Gal’s name as if it discredits his ability to be a proper man. Don’s goal is simple: a form of provocation, hoping to strike a sense of insecurity Gal may have with his masculinity, with the unspoken aim of getting Gal to agree to the heist as a means of “proving” himself as a man.

In another film—a film that plays this narrative progression straight—perhaps Don’s gambit would work right away. The man whose masculinity is put into question takes up this proverbial dare and flings himself headlong back into danger, turning the heist into an opportunity to prove the expectations of his gender. But, Glazer being Glazer, this is where Sexy Beast carves its own unique place within its genre.

*

Just before Don makes his first appearance, Gal has a dream—and Glazer inserts his most overt piece of expressionist filmmaking into Gal’s anxieties. Shortly before, Gal and his best friend Aitch (Cavan Kendall) go hunting rabbits in the Spanish countryside, taking aim and firing at some before packing up, leaving without any kill.

In the dream, a man in a decaying rabbit costume rides a pale horse toward Gal—a figure straight out of Revelation’s heralding of the end times, for this is Gal’s own personal cataclysm—and raises a submachine gun toward him. This is the existential fear that Don Logan poses to Gal, and the severe disruption it poses to Gal’s own personal comfort. This is what the specter of masculine violence is to Gal, and this is the looming threat it holds over him.

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Riffing off a genre often filled to the brim with complicated plans and robust crews, Sexy Beast’s second act is its most gleefully deconstructionist stretch. Just as Don presents Gal with a prolonged setup to the heist—kinetically reshuffled by cross-cutting between three separate points of view, as if another tip-off from Glazer to the fact that even the tenets of the genre won’t be played straight—Gal says no, refusing to join. Don won’t take no for an answer and pushes again, harder. Gal says no again.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Here, Glazer offers his loudest form of generic disruption to date: stopping the film’s plot—and, by extension, the arc expected from those familiar with the genre—dead in its tracks. The narrative begins spinning its wheels, as Don grows more desperate to get Gal to slip, and Gal becomes increasingly fatigued by Don’s tireless beratement. Don’s insults grow all the more furious with each scene, reaching a fever pitch the more timid Gal becomes. It carries the effect of a relentless predator looming over a man shrinking further and further into himself.

In this narrative rut, John Scott and Sam Sneade’s editing begins blurring each individual act of aggression together, until they start to feel indistinct, a shapeless fury of abuses and vitriol that exhausts us as much as it visibly drains Gal. Isolated incidents of Don’s fury and belittlement are welded together with jarring shifts in scene and time, via cuts in motion or intentional juxtaposition.

The longer this goes on, the more pathetic Don’s attempts start to look. Each subsequent outburst from Don begins to take the timbre of a profane child having an extended tantrum after having his desires refused. In Don’s final stab at breaking down Gal’s walls, his unhinged tirade begins with the word “no” a full twenty-five times in a row. Over the span of half an hour, Glazer has stripped back the indomitable force that Don Logan initially poses to reveal a pitiful, wounded subversion of a hypermasculine front, a façade for nothing but petulant entitlement. In refusing to take no for an answer, Don Logan is no longer the tough guy, but the most fragile ego in the film.

Don Logan’s monolithic presence, too, gives Sexy Beast its slipperiest upending of near parodic displays of masculinity: by the end of the film, he’s the only man clinging to an aggressively masculine demeanor that no one else bothers entertaining. Gal has his comfortability in his own body (sans Don’s obscenities looming over him); heist organizer Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) is introduced through an overtly gay fling with another man at an orgy; and Aitch eventually asserts himself over Don’s testosterone-fueled spite by striking a killing blow with a pointedly homoerotic line—“I’ve fucked you now, haven’t I?” The rest of the men of Sexy Beast, when placed next to Don, all feel relatively well-adjusted—or, at the very least, less likely to take those they see as unmanly down a peg to prove it. Even Teddy reframes Don’s derogatorily gendered language as a compliment after the heist’s success, telling the men involved, “You’re all cunts,” with a celebratory pride.

In a brief respite from Don’s rage in this middle stretch of the film, Gal looks freer than ever when it seems as if he has escaped his unruly guest once and for all. He preens and grooms in front of a mirror, while Aitch playfully mimics Don’s disdain for Gal’s appearance, the way a close friend exchanges an in-joke about someone they both can’t stand. Gal—with a confidence he never expresses anywhere else—immediately shoots back, “Fuck off, I’m beautiful,” in jest. It comes out so genuinely that it instantly becomes clear: without Don breathing down his neck, this is what he truly believes about himself. In breaking the oppressive air of hypermasculinity, Gal just simply is—outside any strict expectations of who he should be—and thrives for it.

*

It’s fitting, perhaps, that when Don exits the picture—killed before the heist can even begin—the film resumes with its most homoerotic sequence. After a sudden leap forward to Gal arriving in London (another of Glazer’s breaks from heist films’ narrative flow), the job goes off as planned, with a team of mostly undressed men breaking through a vault wall in the nearby steam bath. The reveal that this has been the plan all along only arrives after Don’s departure, as if a scheme like this wasn’t even in the conversation in his presence. And, without his interference or denigrating commentary, everything goes according to plan. Not a single complication arises in the heist itself. Things move smoother and more efficiently without men like Don Logan.

Even the threat of a hitch in the operation—as Gal lies to Teddy about killing Don and hiding his body—resolves when Teddy unexpectedly echoes Gal’s own thoughts, defusing the tension by emphasizing he doesn’t give “a solitary fuck about Don.” How idyllic is that? That no one has the patience for the irate aggressor who only ever uses his masculine stature to put others down.

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I came to love Sexy Beast long before I loved most traditional heist movies. It didn’t occur to me until long after, but I never felt a kinship with the genre, even as I devoured films of all kinds in adolescence. It wasn’t for lack of ability to respond to films in more traditionally masculine genres—in my denial years, almost anything that fit the bill there became something I latched onto, because they were the “correct” films for me to obsess over as a kid raised to believe I was a boy. When I first came across Sexy Beast in my teenage years, its appeal even read to me as that exact kind of masculine cool, one I associated with so many of the genre’s touchstones through cultural osmosis, right down to what I misconstrued as an excess of machismo in every profane outburst.

Since then, I have kept returning to the film for entirely different reasons: it has become a virulent rebuke of everything that represents the gender I grew to hate performing unconvincingly. The further I get into my transition and the further I get away from the span of my life where I erroneously thought of myself as a man, the more Sexy Beast starts to feel like an elaborate joke at the expense of those who think the pinnacle of masculinity is men hurling obscenities at each other and trying to poke holes in others’ manliness. Don Logan soon felt not like an immovable object of tough guy stereotypes, but like an aging, stubborn, vile man whose repeated frustrations at not getting his way only fuels others’ annoyance with him. He is playing a game no one else bothers to entertain—a sad existence if it didn’t involve him threatening to tear others’ lives down in the process.

As a trans viewer, I’ve always been someone who latches onto films that hold a similar disregard for genre conventions as I do with gender. It becomes a lot easier to sense the shape of my life in a piece of art whose pliability doesn’t push me out entirely. In these films, I can mold the edges to my liking, reconfigure the framework until it feels familiar—like a comfort—even when it should be alienating. Resonance can be found in any film, with enough give and enough determination to see what you need in invisible ink. It’s a habit of trying to make my own space in filmic spheres that don’t often accommodate people like me, a survival mechanism in artistic consumption, a way to find meaning in the places where the text excludes (at least explicitly).

This is why my perpetual fixation on Sexy Beast—a film so concretely about a particular form of masculine posturing, and yet a deconstruction of it all the same—strikes me as so curious. Maybe it’s the way it embodies my own life’s trajectory, my timidity in the face of men aggressively persistent about me conforming to their standards, and my irrational anxieties about the masculine life I left behind coming back for me someday. It reminds me of both my failed attempts to be a loudmouthed, crass, brash man and the feminine life I’ve fled toward instead, in my own personal villa, hidden away from my past ghost who would loathe the person I’ve become. But that ghost can fuck off—I’m beautiful.

*

Above the earth, Gal is back where he began: tranquil, calm, at ease. The sun beats down. He holds himself without shame or reticence, like a man who has come to be confident in his own skin again, floating in his pool with a weightless buoyancy.

Below, the man-sized rabbit kicks open a coffin with Don inside. Its own rage is redirected and, in its hunt, it no longer bothers to hound Gal. His serenity is safe from its violent demeanor.

What more could anyone ask for in finding peace of mind—in themselves, and from those who dare to threaten it?