I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
June 5, 2005
At first glance, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003) seems like a very conventional film noir story but it is in fact told in a very unconventional way as director Mike Hodges refuses to spell things out. Will Graham (Owen) is a retired gangster brought out of self-imposed exile when he learns that Davey (Rhys Meyers), his young brother has apparently committed suicide. Will lives out in a very Twins Peaksian forest as a lumberjack. It’s as if David Lynch directed a British gangster film in Twin Peaks—Fire Walk With Me (1992) mode—in other words, a series of downbeats. Will is drawn back into the city intent on finding out why David killed himself. He learns that his brother was mixed up in drugs and this leads to a nasty crime boss (McDowell). This forces Will to come to grips with his brother’s death as he finds out what happened. The audience has to work out who everyone is and what their relation is to Davey.
One of the striking things about this atmospheric movie is the ominous soundscape, reminiscent of David Lynch’s movies (especially the aforementioned Fire Walk With Me) with its use of ambient sound and offbeat music. The editing, that bounces back and forth between the past and the present, and the existential vibe that permeates every scene evokes The Limey (1999).
Clive Owen delivers the right amount of intensity and has a very charismatic screen presence. He plays a very credible tough guy—quiet yet very driven. There is an air of silence around his character, a tangible aura that makes him something of an enigma. He has very little dialogue but he doesn’t need it. His expressive eyes convey so much more and when he does speak, every word means something.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is the antithesis of contemporary gangster films. There is no flashy editing or a hip soundtrack a la Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino. Instead, Hodges employs invisible, methodical editing and a no-nonsense approach to the material reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts. Hodges draws out a long build-up to the eventual climax whereas most contemporary gangster films go for periodic bursts of violence to punctuate the story. The actual moment of revenge is oddly anticlimactic, not exactly the cathartic release you’d expect. The film ends just as the violence begins.
Anglophiles should keep their eyes peeled for appearances from the likes of Ken Stott who plays rival crime boss, Frank Turner. He starred in two excellent British crime shows, Messiah and The Vice. Alexander Morton plays a psychiatrist that Will visits at one point. He played the lovable Golly on Monarch of the Glen TV program. Finally, one of Frank Turner’s thugs was played by Brian Croucher who played Ted Hills on England’s #1 drama, EastEnders.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is one of the most unconventional revenge movies since The Limey. It is very thoughtfully and intelligently written. It examines the notion of change: trying to change who you are and how, for men like Will, no matter how far he tries to run from his old life he cannot escape who he really is. Mike Hodges’ movie is a refreshing change of pace from flashy filmmakers like Guy Ritchie who get all the attention for the hyperkinetic style that endlessly quotes other movies like a Best Of mixed tape. They are soundbite movies but Hodges’ movie aspires to me much more than that. It is a thoughtful meditation on violence and making decisions in one’s life.