DIRECTED BY: Malcolm Venville
PLOT: Four men (presumably gangsters, though it’s never made explicit) kidnap the lover of a cuckolded mate’s wife and try to goad the bereaved man into killing him for revenge.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird, although it is an example of how an isolated weird scene can creep into a mainstream drama.
COMMENTS: 44 Inch Chest sets up an intriguing conflict that captures our interest, but it fails to capitalize on the inherent drama and its force gradually dissipates into a wisp. When sexy Liz (Whalley) announces she’s leaving Colin (Winstone), he first pleads with her not to go, then winds up beating the name of her lover out of her. Afterward, Colin is so emotionally spent he can’t even get up off the floor or stop listening to Harry Nilsson wail “I can’t live, if living is without you” over and over. His four friends, shady characters at best, kidnap the adulterer and deliver him to their comatose mate so he can extract his vengeance. There’s no evidence that Colin ever asks for their assistance or that his buddies kidnap the loverboy as a favor to him. They are prodding him to do his duty; they take it upon themselves to set up the ritual revenge, and as they egg him on, it becomes clear that if the cuckold fails to conform to the code of gangster honor and kill the man who disrespected him, their value system will be undermined. The problem is that Colin is a clinically depressed, blubbering, lovesick mess who’s barely capable of lighting his own cigarette, much less pulling a trigger and taking another man’s life. The conflict isn’t between between Colin and his wife’s helpless lover (who spends the movie stuffed into a wardrobe or tied to a chair), but between Colin and the bad angels standing two on each shoulder, each using a different tactic to convince him to uphold his “honor.” An actor’s movie, 44 Inch Chest unspools like an overextended one-act play, with each of the major characters getting a monologue and a turn in the spotlight. Winstone’s performance is nuanced, burly and scary, but even more pathetic. As a suave homosexual, Ian McShane dominates whenever he’s onscreen; despite his sophistication and questionable sexuality he’s one of the gang, as crudely masculine as any of them at bottom (in fact, his “love ’em and leave ’em” sexual philosophy is, if anything, the most authentically guy-ish). John Hurt is also excellent as the bitter and shriveled “Old Man Peanut,” who’s as dried up a bundle of bigotry and spite as you’d ever have the misfortune of encountering outside of a Mafia nursing home. Tom Wilkinson does well as Archie, the regular guy of the group and frequently the mediator among clashing egos, and Stephen Dillane is fine, if underused, as the youngest member of the group. As Liz, Whalley is sexy, elegant and distant; the unknowable (to these guys, at least) feminine. The F-word and C-word laden dialogue strives for profane poetry and strikes a reasonably nasty rhythm, though it never sails to the heights of a David Mamet. The problem is the plot, which peters out long before the end and winds up in a philosophically sound but dramatically unsatisfying anticlimax.
A couple of fantasy sequences explain why this vulgar gangster drama is being covered on a weird movie site. When Colin is left alone in a room with his bloodied-up romantic rival, he begins to hallucinate. The visions elucidate his psychology and provide somewhere for the movie to go when the droogs seems to have run out of misogynist arguments. Even when you’ve been warned they’re coming they may catch you by surprise, as its not always completely obvious where the objective world ends and Colin’s internal fantasies begin. Nonetheless, they’re a diversion and don’t really substitute for a more thoughtful plot resolution. Watch 44 Inch Chest for the performances by a superlative collection of British actors, and for the brief glimpse a John Hurt in a black cocktail dress; don’t watch it for the story, or for weirdness.
Louis Mellis and David Scinto, co-writers of the 2000 hit Sexy Beast, wrote the screenplay for Chest. The movie also stars Beast‘s Winstone.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The actors go at the material with obvious relish… On the debit side, and it’s a doozy, the picture’s narrative trajectory fails to deliver a third act that takes the story anywhere of note except into a silly realm of cut-rate surrealism. Final reel ends not with the expected bang but with an almost inaudible whimper.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)