I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
Not to step on Allyn's nice review below, but my thoughts are a bit longer than a comment's post, so please tolerate a double review.
So slow burning it practically extinguishes itself, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
is the most mellow and low-key thriller ever made. Coming far too late in the game to be labeled a revisionist genre piece, Mike Hodges’ new work follows the model of his previous film Croupier
in its moody blandness. Unlike that film-which helped put Clive Owen on the map for deadpan antihero and hopeful next James Bond-I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
effortlessly avoids criminal psychology, narrative slickness, or satisfying plot mechanics. The film, in what must be a deliberate decision shared between the Hodges’ shadowy and plain aesthetic and writer Trevor Preston’s hyper no-nonsense script, seriously flirts with being nondescript.
Clive Owens returns to Hodges’ stable as blank-faced Will Graham, a man with a gangster’s reputation who has secluded himself in the English countryside. His self-imposed exile is a lonely one of empty woods and living out of a van but the fatalism inherent in such tales keeps reminding him of his criminal past. Amongst his loneliness and apparent penance for past life wasted, Will senses something amiss with his city-dwelling brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Returning to the city in the dead of night in order to explain his uncanny feeling, Graham discovers that Davey had recently committed suicide. Horrified as much as mystified, Will feels this situation must bring him back into the urban underworld to explain his brother’s death.
The setup reeks of revenge, and the film’s title promises the kind of narrow-minded violent plow-through of the lower depths of urban scum epitomized in John Booreman’s Point Blank
, Steven Soderbergh’s fairly recent The Limey
, and quintessentially in Hodges’ own masterpiece Get Carter
. But if I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
’s visual style does nothing to reinvent the thriller, it is Hodges and Preston’s narrative approach to the story that essentially turns the film into a deliberate anti-thriller. Completely devoid of style, Owen walks around in a lumberjack’s beard and plaid shirt, his potentially violent frame shrouded by a bulky parka; the man looks more like a bum than a ruthless mobster, and a number of local cronies actually mistake him for a pikey. The camera generally keeps its distance as well and Graham is not just a monotone single-minded protagonist, he and most of the people he deals with throughout his quest are equally devoid of deep characterization.
Most of the talking in the entire film is done in three highly psychological but narratively unnecessary speeches. In the first Graham’s restaurateur ex-girlfriend Helen (Charlotte Rampling) speaks of the reasons why their relationship cannot be picked up again, but Will dismisses this as a motive for his return and asks her to help find the reason behind Davey’s death. He follows the trail from a coroner who discovers that Davey was raped before he died to a rape psychologist who gives a lengthy discourse on how rape is more about power than sex-but Will simply wants a profile for the man he is looking for. When Will Graham finally finds the man, a wealthy socialite played by Malcolm McDowell, the character delivers an involving monologue on his motive, one which Will could not care a lick about. He executes the man and is done with it. There is no tension in the film, no suspense about who this man really is or the method behind his madness, and likewise Hodges and Preston minimalize Graham as a sympathetic character whose vengeance the audience should be supporting.
Though ridiculous motive delivered by McDowell superficially means nothing to Will, from the speech blossoms the only dominant theme within I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
, that of the fatalism in the subtle class distinctions within the urban world. Preston’s screenplay presents only two kinds of gangsters-those on top and those who do their bidding-but the bourgeoisie aspirations of a lower class working kid like Davey catapults him to a social level not shared by those around him. Dealing drugs to and hanging around in the social circles of young bourgeois men and women puts Davey near a group of people who share with the mob bosses a mutual hatred for the working class and their aspirations.
Outside all this is Graham, whose past is a mystery and whose urban status is confused between Helen’s refined older age and restaurant ownership and Will’s ties to his brother and the petty thugs in that strata. Will’s decision to divorce himself from that urban/criminal/classist sphere and retreat to a rugged nature life is the decision of one unable to reconcile the subtle machinations and degradations involved in navigating a society of crime and life, finding a place between the working class and the bourgeoisie, and likewise above the street thugs and the classy mob bosses. Will’s decision to fall back into the orbit of the urban world-a decision which eventually results in a stylistic make over, putting him back in the role of suave underworld playboy hovering between the streets and the mansions-is as much about the loneliness of not finding one’s place in the world as it is about brotherhood and vengeance. But life for a gangster is one of fate, and Will’s attempt at wholesome seclusion in the country translates to a lifeless, friendless life in the city. He dismisses the help of his own mates, takes his task on alone, and in doing so attempts again to find the impossible-a place between social worlds, a quest that time and time again ends in death.
The subtly of Hodges’ film is extreme; it could almost be defined as an elliptical noir. On screen it seems to lack presence, to lack a punch, but its memory stays in the mind and claws away in places only true noirs lurk. One may even superimpose its social concerns onto the stylistic choices of the film itself-Simon Fischer-Turner’s disruptive dissonant play with a jazz score being a prime example-dismissing obviousness, slickness, and style in order to pare down the now-standard opulence of a gritty genre. At first glance I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
practically invites dismissal, but its simple, well-plod lines are etched deeper than one imagines, and the work, on repeated viewings, may in fact be stronger than Croupier
and be a true successor to Get Carter