The writers behind the volcanic crime film “Sexy Beast” have returned, dukes up, with “44 Inch Chest,” a blistering script sponsored primarily by the letters F, U, K, and C (but not necessarily in that order). Marvelously cast and beguilingly barking mad, the picture is a salt-stained, merrily profane plunge into the abyssal depths of jealousy and confusion. It’s a razor-sharp bear trap of a movie, but I suppose it’s to be expected from the slang-lovin’, tongue-chewin’ “Sexy Beast” duo.
Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) is a gangster who’s learned his beloved wife Liz (Joanne Whalley) has cheated on him with a younger man. Seeing their cohort paralyzed by hurt and lathered with fury, Diamond’s colleagues and friends arrive for support, including Archie (Tom Wilkinson), cantankerous Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), suave homosexual Meredith (Ian McShane), and Mal (Stephen Dillane). Rallying around their comrade, the group learns the scope of Colin’s anguish, encouraging his rage while the destroyed cuckold replays the desecration in his mind. Stewing in the juices of this marital violation, the boys can only come up with one solution to solve the problem: kidnap and kill the young man in question (Melvil Poupaud).
While it kicks off as a teeth-clenched joyride of clever gangsters, verbal diarrhea, and bloody knuckles (along with some of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” to help harden the bruiser’s defeat), “44 Inch Chest” ends up as more of a psychological foxtrot, pushing its way into Colin’s warped headspace as he processes the act of adultery. Director Malcolm Venville takes the tonal lead set by writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto, toying with shards of reality as Colin is gradually consumed by madness of his own making. “44 Inch Chest” is not a film to outwit, it’s something to ride along with, burning through peaks and valleys of a shattered psyche — a man who’s seen his fair share of cruelty, yet is utterly destroyed by the loss of his wife.
As the foaming dogs of the evening, the ensemble is perfection, with each actor bestowed a unique viewpoint for this unusual situation. Jacked up on intricate passages of deliciously foul dialogue, the talent is all spittle and ill-conceived reason, gnawing the script with extraordinary appetites. As the center of the storm, Winstone is marvelous, channeling insanity with a startling quality of interior quaking that makes Colin a charging rhino of instability, though the final summation of guilt remains undecided between his own actions and those of the silent, thrashed lover. Standing out in the supporting cast is McShane, coolly swaying along as the level-headed one, while Hurt explodes as the irritable senior citizen unwilling to process any outcome to the kidnapping other than virtuous execution. Whalley, who I don’t think I’ve seen in a feature film in over a decade (a crime), exudes sublime concern and an unforeseen sultry quality as the scorned woman.
More theatrical than cinematically demonstrative, “44 Inch Chest” is held together by monologues and accusations, not a progression of violent crime. The anticlimactic nature of the material might unsettle some viewers accustomed to a rolled-up-sleeves resolution, but the picture isn’t about the squeeze of the trigger, only the perverse expansion of a traumatized mind.Rating: B+