(Movie Review by Donnie Saxton) Somewhat disturbingly, I can easily imagine Clive Owen (“Sin City”) in 1971 practicing his chilling stare in an English sandbox while taking some poor toddler’s lunch money. That same year, Mike Hodges released his benchmark revenge thriller “Get Carter”, which defined film exploration of the London underworld with gruesome and realistic imagery. Now, some 30-plus years later, Hodges has tapped Owen and his trademark stare as the supporting vehicle for the new revenge thriller “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”
Working from a Trevor Preston script, Hodges returns to his original formula of constructing another dreary, interwoven tale about retribution and the ties that bind. Although films like “Get Carter” and its progeny fit squarely into the category of English noir, they are best described as depressing drama. Hodges uses dark lighting and shadows to set the mood, but the fundamental bleakness is promulgated by Owen’s performance as Will Graham.
Initially, the film seesaws back and forth between the daily lives of Will and that of his brother David (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, “Bend It Like Beckham”). Will is a former gangster who has given up the gig, and now lives a hermit’s life out of a van in northern England. That he is irreversibly depressed is evident from the get go — his sadness is manifested in each breath that he takes, and is worn expertly by Owen like an invisible metal jacket. However, precious few specifics leak out about the source of his despair or his former life (Why’d he leave? Pressure? Shame? Northern English cuisine?) except to suggest some macabre criminal occupation. Thus, the audience is left to dwell on what ghastly deeds led to the London street credit that Will enjoys throughout the movie.
By contrast, Will’s brother David moves with a skip in his step, and his occupation is that of a freewheeling thief and small time drug dealer. David has barely a care in the world besides his next score, and his cheerful disposition alone is what keeps “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” from being swallowed by Will’s anguish. That is, until David is gang raped in a random alley when his cab driver has car trouble. The brutal violation leads David to take his own life by the next morning, setting Will on a quest for vengeance against those responsible.
Hodges has a gift for creating atmospheric backdrops upon which to film this type of story, and with “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, the director expertly creates creepy gloom that is more than just a little melancholy. Unfortunately the visual impact of “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is the highpoint, because the story suffers mightily as a result of loose ends that never meet, and ideas that are never adequately developed. Also, subplots abound, and are discarded almost as soon as they arise.
Upon returning to London and learning of his brother’s death, Will meets up with some of his former partners in crime who see him as the missing link to their shady livelihood. Additionally, a rival gangster (Malcolm McDowell, who played a similar role in “Gangster No. 1”) becomes paranoid when he learns of Will’s return, and immediately begins plotting Will’s demise. Soon it becomes clear that Will left behind some unfinished business of his own, which is apropos considering how many questions the film itself leaves unattended to by the end.
For instance, David’s demise is less than plausible and never adequately explained — not just the psychological causation of his suicide, but also the circumstances of the rape. That dead end is just one of many loose ends that fray at an accelerated pace as the film crescendos toward an anti-climactic finale. It becomes apparent that David’s unfortunate end and other events in the film exist only as screenplay motivation; that is, to allow Will and his gangster persona to return to London seeking revenge while spreading his unique awareness of depression and death — in that order.
It has been suggested that Hodges left many questions unanswered to purposefully set forth a mystery thriller that never answers the questions it presents, as a form of artistic stimulation. Perhaps, but if that is true, the material was poorly chosen and the delivery just poor, because they serve to confuse rather than provoke. In the end, Will’s reflection upon his brother’s memory is congruent to the impact this rather forgettable film had upon me: “What’s left to say he (it) was here at all? Not much.”
Mike Hodges (director) / Trevor Preston (screenplay)
CAST: Clive Owen …. Will
Charlotte Rampling …. Helen
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers …. Davey
Malcolm McDowell …. Boad