Ray Winstone, that big, brooding, brute of a man. He’s one of our go-to tough guys – a violent, charming bruiser whose characters do whatever it takes to get what they want.
I’ve been a huge admirer of Winstone’s on screen presence for the better part of a decade, but it wasn’t until he told Leonardo DiCaprio that “You don’t. Fuckin’. Hit ‘em!” that I realized I loved this dude.
A few more examples of my admiration follows:
Five Essential Roles
Nil by Mouth (1997)
Ray is one brutal son of a bitch – a South East London pusher who drinks too much, gambles too frequently and snorts dope too liberally. His (many) indiscretions allow Nil by Mouth to be one of the most savage films I’ve ever seen. Everything about Gary Oldman’s first (and as it stands, only) directed film is gritty and real, for better or worse.
It’s terrifying, for example, to watch Ray as he spots his girlfriend playing pool with another man. By this point in the film, Ray has, among other things, damn near bitten the nose off his junkie brother-in-law, so, when we see him staring at his girlfriend in this scene, we know no good will come of it. To our surprise, Ray and his dame go home and sleep it off. Nothing happens. That is, until he wakes up.
Nil by Mouth isn’t an easy ride, but it contains one of the most ferociously guilt-ridden performances ever caught on film. If you thought Peter Mullan (and Eddie Marsan) were bad in Tyrannosaur, well, you ain’t seen shit.
The War Zone (1999)
Another insatiable son of a bitch is Winstone’s character in Tim Roth’s (again, first and only) directed film, The War Zone. I find it difficult on a human level to describe what Winstone's character pulls in this film. A simple Google search will relieve your curiosities, but, instead, I recommend that you watch this film as an exercise in the human condition. That is, an exercise into the worst that humans have to offer.
Now, to be clear, The War Zone (which also contains a very good, very young Tilda Swinton) is a rather good film, it is just extremely difficult to stomach. The only way to do what Winstone does here is to go all in, so to speak. He does, the result of which will horrify you to no end. But, if the film is doing its job (which I think it is), then you very well may find some sort of obscure, fucked up catharsis amidst the dread. The War Zone is currently on Netflix Instant. Your call.
Ripley’s Game (2002)
Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game, based on a book featuring the same character seen in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, is a small, rather ingenious little thriller. Much of the success of Ripley’s Game can be credited to John Malkovich, who plays the eponymous character, but also to Winstone’s slimy Reeves.
Reeves is a not-so-sleek con man way out of his depth against Malkovich’s Ripley. He’s greedy, manipulative, and rather irrational. The plot for Ripley’s Game is far too fun to be spoiled here, but Winstone’s power in the film can be summarized by one minor jump cut. When we first meet Reeves, he is a leather clad, sweaty hustler. Three years later, now rich from a heist, he is the same sweaty hustler, only now dressed in designer suits. It’s so fun to watch Winstone play this false facet of a thug. The suit does not make the man, my dear Reeves.
The Proposition (2005)
Winstone’s Captain Stanley is the fierce enforcer of John Hillcoat’s remarkable revisionist western The Proposition. After Stanley captures two brothers from the notoriously ruthless Burns family, he tells the sensible Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) that if he finds and kills his psychopathic brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), then Stanley will let the youngest Burns brother, Mikey, go free. Run out on the job, and Stanley will hang Mikey in public on Christmas Day.
So, on the surface, Captain Stanley is another one of Winstone’s lethal bullies – a guy who will do and inflict anything to get what he wants. But Hillcoat’s film has more depth than that. When we’re given a chance to look closer, we realize that Stanley is actually a kind, honest man doing his best to keep his head above water, which is something that becomes increasingly difficult as the films progresses. In no way should The Proposition be missed.
The Departed (2006)
As Jack Nicholson’s loyal right hand man, Mr. French, Winstone is a devilishly entertaining force of nature in Martin Scorsese’s contemporary gangster classic.
All of my favorite scenes from The Departed are the sequences no one ever seems to mention. Take, for example, the brief dialogue French and Nicholson’s Costello have about French’s “one in a million” dedication to his craft. “Ten million,” French corrects Costello. “What about your wife?” Costello playfully jabs. “I thought she was…” then BAM, jump cut to Winstone strangling is wife with a wire, then BAM, we’re back in the original scene.
That’s damn fine Shoonmaker editing, sure, but I love the blank expression on Winstone’s face during that conversation. He kind of brushes it off with a silent “eh,” then goes on with the rest of his day. Also, I have to make mention of Winstone’s final scene in this film, which is one of the most hilarious gangster send offs I’ve ever seen.
The Best of the Best
Sexy Beast (2001)
…I’m sweatin’ here…
…You could fry an egg on my stomach…
And so we’re introduced to Gal, a retired gangster with a heart of gold in Jonathan Glazer’s remarkable (and remarkably underrated) Sexy Beast. I love everything there is to love about Gal. I love his kindness, his blasé attitude; I love the fact that HE loves the fact that he’s out of the life. That is, of course, until his best friend mentions the name “Don Logan” at dinner one evening, and in one brilliant, revelatory, Oscar-worthy facial expression, Winstone let’s us know that his happy-go-lucky life is about to be thrown upside down in a Big. Fucking. Way.
Winstone’s scenes with Ben Kinglsey’s Don are some of the best moments of their respective careers. Watch the scene in which Don, who has been sent to Spain to convince Gal to return to England for one final job, berates Gal in his own kitchen. There’s the seemingly unimposing Don screaming: “YES! YES! YES! YES!” as Gal cowers in the corner. It’s an ingenious moment of puppy-dog torture, one that only gives Winstone’s performance here even more complexity, which, in hindsight, is something Winstone always manages to do.
Other Notable Roles
Cold Mountain (2003)
King Arthur (2004)
Breaking and Entering (2006)
44 Inch Chest (2009)
Edge of Darkness (2010)
William H. Macy