44 Inch Chest (R) 112 min. Directed by: Malcolm Venville Written by: Louis Mellis & David Scinto Starring: Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Whalley Cinematography: Dan Landin Original Score: Angelo Badalamenti
There are six men in the room. It’s one of those run-down, grimy hotel jobs where the walls haven’t seen a paint roller in centuries, and the furnishings suggests it’s mostly used for taking care of unsavory business best not exposed to the light. Now imagine for a moment, you are the sixth man in the room…who happens to be tied to a chair with a bag over your head, listening to the other five decide your fate.
Pretend that when you finally do have the lights turned on again, and are breathing the squalid hotel air, the first people you see are Ian McShane, Stephen Dillane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson and Ray Winstone. In fact, you hear them before you see them, throwing out oceans of profanity in accents so thick and angry it sounds more like barking than speaking. Now finally, imagine that you know why you are here, what beef they have with you; you’ve been sleeping with Winstone’s wife—plan in fact to run away with her—and you know he knows. What do you think then are your chances of surviving the night?
This is more or less the simple set-up of Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest, another in a long line of Brit crime dramas about those dangerous men who make up the seedy underbelly of society. Written by Louis Mellis & David Scinto, who also scripted 2001’s Sexy Beast, the film takes place over the course of a single, long night and is, more or less, confined to that one hotel room. The trailers suggest a brutal, violent affair in the vein of Snatch or Layer Cake.
The truth, however, is that Chest isn’t like any of them; instead it stands the Brit crime flick on it’s head by featuring very little actual crime. We never hear, in fact, what it is any of these men really do—save for Winstone who runs a car lot—although there’s plenty of suggestion they aren’t to be toyed with. Instead of a film full of action beats or sordid deeds, Venville’s picture has the atmosphere and pedigree of a stage play with the five men standing around the sixth, discussing their views on life, philosophy and women. The considerable tension generated is related to the fact that all five are ready and willing to murder this other man, the adulterer, who does very little speaking himself.
The acting is top caliber, and the whole film has been structured in a way that highlights and focuses in on it. This is a meaty screenplay, despite the fact half of the script was probably expletives, and each and every character (save for Loverboy) is fleshed out and considered. They become living, breathing people, flaws and all, and we are made curious about where all this is leading. It is also worth noting that their interaction is compelling due as much to the actors playing them as anything else.
Winstone, in the lead, is refreshingly sensitive and simultaneously brutish as Colin Diamond. Diamond is the wronged party, who never saw his wife’s (a welcome Joanne Whalley) infidelity coming. He doesn’t perceive himself as guilty in the situation, and a grounded temper comes off the hinges when his life falls apart. The film opens amusingly with him lying on the floor of his home, the room looking like Kong himself trashed it, his wife gone, and Badfinger’s ‘Without You’ playing on repeat. Colin is a man in the midst of an emotional crisis, and his friend’s suggested remedy—murdering the bloke who caused his pain—looks like the best way out of it.
But Winstone, who can be great in and out of tough guy roles, manages to make Diamond’s whimpering hurt and tear-stained regret empathetic. We get that his life has been torn apart. For the rest of the film he’s forced to wrestle with his own notions of manliness and worth, and Chest requires expert versatility from Winstone. At one point, the script even plays with the idea that Colin may be the only person in the room save for his abductee, and his friends possibly all home asleep in their beds. This is great work, and in truth, a stronger role even than that of Gal Dove in Sexy Beast.
The rest of the cast is a laundry list of terrific usual suspects. Hurt as Old Man Peanut, the extra-crusty and aged member of the gang is like an old, rabid dog in a brittle, grimy business suit. You can almost smell the moth balls and cheap cologne, and when he opens his mouth, you catch the heavy wafting aromas of contempt. When he isn’t actually speaking profanity, one look into Peanut’s eyes tells you he’s thinking of a word that starts with C. Stephen Dillane as Mal is the kind of guy who seems like he’s spends his free time threatening orphans with a jack-knife. Much of the pictures’ substantial humor comes from the fact Mal seems constantly surprised by how seedy everyone thinks he is.
Ian McShane’s Meredith is one of the film’s best creations, a suave, elegant homosexual who doesn’t hold to the same thinking as his compatriots, which may be a good thing. McShane never loses his scary edge, but simply packs it away beneath the gentleman’s facade, tearing holes and letting it show through when the script requires it. He’s a great foil for Hurt’s homophobic Peanut and the closest thing to a conscience Colin can expect from this bunch. Rounding out the lot is Tom Wilkinson, who plays the mostly gentle Archie, who likes to cook and lives with his ailing mum. Like the rest, Wilkinson gets mileage from suggesting the paradox that lies within a man who can be concerned his sherry sauce isn’t think enough one moment, and then be ready to personally assist in bashing a man’s brains in the next.
It’s hard to explain the exact appeal of 44 Inch Chest until one actually sees it. Like I said, most of the film is given over to conversations and some scenes actually morph into others, recalling seemingly unrelated events from days or even weeks earlier. There is a stream of consciousness approach to Colin’s misery, and at one point all of the characters have started acting out his personal, dreaded fantasies related to why his wife is leaving him. Underneath the foul tough guy dialogue there is an interesting subtext that deconstructs the image of the hard-edged, macho thug that runs roughshod through films like this. I was surprised too by the ending, which I didn’t quite see coming. Some may be disappointed by it, and suggest that the picture’s build-up has been spoilt. I would say they are wrong though.
To tell the truth, 44 Inch Chest has been moving slowly and inexorably toward it’s final moments from the very beginning. Kudos to this cast and writers, and to Venville, for making the journey to it such a beguiling and complex one. It’s only few weeks into 2010, and already we have a contender for year’s sharpest, wittiest bit of noir. If you are a fan of the hard-boiled, don’t dream of missing 44 Inch Chest.