The leading roles in Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest are played by Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, and Stephen Dillane. That cast list alone makes it worth seeing, and the screenplay by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (who also penned Sexy Beast) gives them an abundance of terse, tough-guy dialogue to hiss—in cool accents, no less. So there’s lot of fun to be had here; it’s just a shame how the script falls apart at the end.The opening images are arresting: shattered glass, a trashed home, a dog cowering under a couch, and Colin Diamond (Winstone) sprawled out on the floor, right in the middle of it, listening to Nilsson’s “Without You.” We piece together what’s happened—his wife (Joanne Whalley) has left him for a much younger man, and he’s devastated and furious (to what degree will be revealed). His four friends (McShane, Hurt, Wilkinson, and Dillane) have a solution for his woes: they kidnap said younger man (Melvil Poupaud), drag him to an abandoned house, and go to work on him.
These preliminary scenes don’t step wrong; director Venville (a commercial director making his feature film debut) adopts a shooting style that’s both grimy and snazzily stylish, while the structure is assured and the stellar cast is clearly having a ball. Winstone, a big, barrel-chested bear of a man, has never been better—his acting, particularly in the numerous flashbacks to his wife’s confession (and his reaction to it), is superb. His persona turns on a dime from affable to sympathetic to terrifying, and the wild gesticulations of the script require an actor who can make those turns that quickly. McShane plays the debonair man’s man (literally); his smooth delivery bespeaks a quiet, elegant power. The always-valuable Wilkinson is Colin’s most grounded, matter-of-fact friend, the straight-shooter who doesn’t blink when suggesting that the cuckholder must be killed, but is also thoughtful enough to bring snacks (“Anybody want any crisps?”). Hurt is the oldest and foulest of the bunch, while Dillane makes less of an impression than the other actors as the youngest member of the crew.
Once the picture settles in to its primary location, we’re content to watch its varsity cast spit snappy, slangy dialogue at each other, throwing back drinks and tossing around “c-bombs” while their victim languishes in a beat-up wardrobe; it’s taut but playful, like a Cockney Reservoir Dogs. The construction is fairly ingenious as well—very deliberate choices are made about what they choose to show us and not show us, and when the things we haven’t seen are revealed, and when to flit away for the story’s strange little diversions and sidebars.
It reaches its fever pitch of tension around hour mark, as Colin finally faces off against “Loverboy”; the camera comes in tight, and Winstone’s work is quiet but powerful, as he chews on his words and fires them at this wife’s lover. Is the picture too talky? Sure it is—but the film is in love with language (in the same way that Tarantino and Mamet’s films are), and it’s a pleasure for the scripters to write, the actors to say, and for us to hear. But there are moments, particularly in the second half, where the film feels too written—more of a prepared construct than a situation captured.
And then, it gets really strange. Throughout the film, there are strange little diversions and sidebars, but none of them prepare us for the story’s turn into nightmare surrealism in the final half hour. In a phrase, it doesn’t play—it rather takes the air out of the movie, piercing the considerable tension and sticky mood that the filmmakers have worked so hard to acquire. Some of it is enjoyable, on a base level (there’s a particularly strange visual that gets a hearty if easy laugh), but the picture isn’t nimble enough to pull off the tonal footwork.
Still, it’s worth a look—Venville’s got a good eye for visuals, Angelo Badalamenti’s score is memorable (no surprise there), and (not to reiterate the same point too many times), I’d watch this profanely quotable group of actors read the phone book. 44 Inch Chest is intriguing and skillful, even if it’s not fully successful.