“Sexy Beast” scribes Louis Mellis and David Scinto team up once again with acting talents Ray Winstone and Ian McShane for a well-observed study of the male ego. Those hoping for a sequel of sorts will find themselves in aurally familiar territory, but this is a very different beast and it’s anything but sexy.First-time feature director Malcolm Venville introduces key protagonist Colin Diamond (Winstone) splayed out on the floor, wallowing in the debris of his home and as is subsequently revealed his marriage. As Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” emanates pertinently from his stereo, it’s fairly apparent that Colin is a broken man having been told by wife Liz (Joanne Whalley) that she’s leaving him for a younger man. Colin’s ragtag collection of friends rally round, although its ill-conceived interpretation of support seems to consist of kidnapping Liz’s lover boy and locking him in a cupboard in a derelict house.
Colin is the epitome of the pseudo alpha male; outwardly, he’s physically a hulk of a man, but mentally he’s a husk. And Winstone’s vulnerable performance is both credible and impressive. Mellis and Scinto’s clever script implies that each of his friends embodies a different aspect of Colin’s psyche and conscience, and so his emotional battle plays out toward an uncertain conclusion, albeit one which can only ever have two outcomes: lover boy’s death or his freedom.
Old Man Peanut (a delightfully brusque and angry John Hurt) represents the old school, preferring tough love and advocating brutal justice to put things right, while Meredith (a fantastically amusing McShane) provides a more measured foil for Colin to bounce off. Meanwhile, Archie (Tom Wilkinson) and Mal (Stephen Dillane) veer between maniacal and sympathetic. At times it’s a coarse-wordy shout fest, but the intimate surroundings (the majority of the picture takes place in one room) give “44 Inch Chest” a very theatrical feel. In effect, the claustrophobic setting emphasizes the emotional malaise Colin finds himself in; confronted as he is by his cowardly actions (beating Liz) and the fact that his mental fragility presents a very real threat to his physical strength.
The immediate, close-up direction ramps up the tension, particularly once lover boy is dragged from said cupboard to face his antagonists. In fact, it’s only when Venville adheres to Mellis and Scinto’s fantastical metaphors, interspersing the action with nightmarish visions to emphasize Colin’s crumbling mental state, that the picture stumbles slightly. Yet it’s such an engaging insight into the notion of masculinity that even these imagined scenes work. A razor-sharp script and an excellent ensemble cast make this intrinsically simple tale utterly compelling viewing; “44 Inch Chest” is surprising, considered, well crafted and intelligent filmmaking.