The M/C Review: ’44 Inch Chest’ should please ‘Sexy Beast’ fans, but how much?

01.21.10 8 years ago

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Ray Winstone.  Ian McShane.  John Hurt.  Tom Wilkinson.  Stephen Dillane.  Just seeing those names together on a poster should get any fan of English film excited.

But throw in a screenwriting credit for Louis Mellis and David Scinto, who wrote “Sexy Beast,” and that’s a genuine cause for celebration.  And if you’re a fan of Malcolm Venville as a photographer or for his striking commercial work, then that’s just bonus on bonus since this film marks his feature directorial debut.

So with all that potential in front of and behind the camera, does the film live up to it?

Yes and no.

The film is great looking, moody, with a constant sense of simmering violence thanks to cinematographer Daniel Landin, which is no surprise.  He’s been one of the most impressive guys working in music videos for the last 15 years or so.  And the cast is uniformly good, led by Ray Winstone as Colin Diamond, a powder keg of a man who has just learned that his wife Liz (the still-gorgeous Joanne Whalley) has been unfaithful to him.  Upon learning this news, which she tells to him with a matter-of-fact cruelty, he goes totally caveman, and with the help of his friends, he tracks down and abducts Loverboy (Melvil Poupand), tying him to a chair while he decides what to do with him.

His first instinct is to kill the kid, and it’s obvious that Colin is a man capable of great violence.  However, Venville plays games with what he shows you, so you’re not sure if some of what you see is imagined potential or regretful memory.  What’s funny is how the film feels like a gangster film, even though it’s technically not.  Colin is a garage owner, not a hired killer.  His fury isn’t professional… it’s as personal as possible.  There are few things that eat at a man’s sense of self-worth like the idea that his spouse has been unfaithful, and Colin’s friends all give voice to his self-doubts.  They all seem shady, especially with the way they casually talk about killing Liz’s boyfriend.  Unsurprisingly, Mellis and Scinto write rich, profane dialogue with a rhythm all its own, very much like “Sexy Beast,” and there is a choice at the heart of the film that generates some real urgency.

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling as I watched that the film’s a bit of an exercise, more mannered than organic, and that seems to be a trap that many stylists fall into when they cross from the commercial or video world into features.  I can see exactly what everyone’s trying for, and I can’t really fault any of the individual work.  The score, for example, is striking and ominous, composed by Angelo Badalamenti and 100 Suns, the production arm of Massive Attack, and it’s a successful blend of those very different sonic approaches.  But in a way, the score and the cinematography and the bristling masculinity of the cast all feel like overkill for something that ends up being fairly slight.

You can tell John Hurt saw “Sexy Beast” and decided he wanted a role like the one that Ben Kingsley had.  He digs into every filthy word that Old Man Peanut says with obvious relish, but you can almost see the lines written out on the page, complete with broken punctuation and Pinter pauses built in.  Probably the most interesting performance is McShane, playing an unreptentantly gay thug who takes sly delight in sharing the details of his sex life with his squeaming friends, enjoying the discomfort it causes them.

I’m glad i saw “44 Inch Chest,” and it’s worth it for fans of this sort of thing, but there’s a definite hint of been-there-done-that that mars an otherwise impressive experience.  The film is playing now in limited release.

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