44 Inch Chest
Macho posturing doesn’t always have to be a cover for homoerotic tension. Sometimes, such as with a movie like Humpday, the homoerotic tension is created by the macho posturing. In that film, two friends drunkenly dare each other to make a gay porn together, and the next day, neither will back off for fear of looking “weak” (read: gay). They convince themselves to do something they don’t want to do because of their approximation of what hardened straight men are supposed to be, someone who can make a decision and stick to it, no matter how much it would be in their best interest to have second thoughts.
Such a dilemma is central to Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest, where Ray Winstone (as Colin) has to decide whether or not he wants to kill the man in front of him. A man who repeatedly slept with Colin’s wife, breaking up their 21 year marriage. The confusion for Colin is created because his friends have kidnapped the man, a young, good-looking waiter at a French restaurant, brought him to an abandoned house in an isolated area and are egging Colin on to kill him, as it would be the right thing to do. His friends range in age and temperament, but they’re all too old to be active gangsters (or as Chris Rock might put it “too old for the club”), and killing the waiter is, of course, something they certainly couldn’t do on their own, no matter what they tell themselves.
As if to really hammer home this point, writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto (who wrote the black comedy Sexy Beast, also about manly bluster that spills over into violence and/or gay sex) has Colin’s friends be comprised of people like Tom Wilkinson, who is in his 60s and still lives with and dotes on his mother, John Hurt, wrinkled, nasty, judgmental, and feeble, and Ian McShane as a gay playboy named Meredith, who has a calming demeanor and revels in having no emotional attachments. Colin has defined himself by his marriage, and his one-note character would seem to be Mellis and Scinto’s fault, but they’ve basically written a grown-up version of Where the Wild Things Are, where each character is really representative of a side to Colin, and one that hasn’t surfaced in a long time (alienating his wife, played by the ex-Mrs.Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley), and are all trying to examine his inner rage.
Limited to mostly a single, barren set, 44 Inch Chest is closest to a surrealist stage play that resembles the writing of David Mamet and David Rabe in tone (and at points, Neil LaBute), all of whom specialize in the seething hostility of the common, shallow man. Mellis and Scinto bring some elements of Sexy Beast with them, such as the self-aware flashbacks where characters, looking at the camera, mouth the words of their own narration, and fantasy scenes that cause characters to lose sense of their reality, and are often creepy and disorienting for us. McShane and Winstone were two of the leads in Sexy Beast as well (with McShane playing another calculating, gay character and Winstone as a settled family man with a wife that’s too good looking for him, and he knows it), and once again there’s a character named Mal, but the Sexy Beast comparison is mostly superficial and a misdirection. Venville’s film doesn’t have the show-off style of Sexy Beast, nor the quick pacing, in-your-face performances, or the blindingly sunny color scheme. Venville keeps the camera back and the images wet, brown, and moldy while the characters scowl and spew vitriol at the waiter (and frequently tarnishing Whalley’s image with graphic sexual invective), allowing us to see how they have nothing behind them. All their empty hostility makes the occasional un-ironically delivered line like “what a boo-boo,” that much funnier.
That’s not to suggest that 44 Inch Chest is anywhere near the black comedy that Sexy Beast was, Venville’s inexperience (it’s his first feature) behind the camera pops up from time to time, especially in the slack first ½ hour, that takes far too long to set up the simple premise and half-hearted staging that makes the characters look like they’re at an AA meeting, not people who’ve known each other for quite a long time. But the swirling momentum of the third act, as Colin may be losing his mind, does a lot to help you forget about the film’s previous aimlessness. Winstone’s performance is intentionally sputtery, and a lot of 44 Inch Chest is carried by McShane’s suavity, but just like the messiness worked in favor of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, the lack of control in 44 Inch Chest gives us a much better idea of Colin’s mindset. Maybe he’ll admit to making a boo-boo.