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
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
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.
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."