It would be nice to declare, “Fans of Mike Hodges, rejoice!” or some such thing at the arrival of the veteran director’s latest film — but alas, not this time. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead shares elements with some of Hodges’ previous work, including a familial revenge theme (from his original Get Carter) and stone-faced actor Clive Owen (from his big sleeper comeback, Croupier), but overall it’s no great shakes. While many critics are no doubt fretting over whether to go with “astonishing” or “mesmerizing,” the bottom line is that it’s dank, moody, and sorrowful (all pros for this critic), but also tediously vague, thematically plodding, and often, very unfortunately, eye-rollingly absurd in its grimness. Some may swoon; I yawned a lot.
The movie opens promisingly, with eerily designed credits and some dreamlike, obsessive philosophizing on a windswept beach. We then descend into the cheap urban world of party-boy Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a minor-league drug dealer and layabout who specializes in pulling birds and very little else. We also meet Will (Owen), bearded and living rough in a van far away in the wilderness, prone to the odd random act of kindness. This kindness sours quickly when Davey is suddenly captured by Boad (Malcolm McDowell), some sort of kingpin with issues, who gets ultraviolent on Davey’s arse — er, literally. When Davey ends up dead, his brother Will returns to London to settle the score.
While revenge movies are always popular and frequently predictable, Hodges and his longtime associate, screenwriter Trevor Preston (Slayground), opt out of most conventions here, which is commendable. Will’s general character arc may be painfully obvious — you know, the lone wanderer called back into the cesspool of crime who must choose between cold vengeance and walking away from “The Life” — but the filmmakers approach the material quite obliquely. Hardly anyone actually does anything, but rather, Will and the supporting characters trudge through the murk as through a series of moody rehearsals or outtakes, the scenes between the scenes. The conceit flounders onscreen, but it’s novel and, liberated from traditionally tight movie plotting, actually not unlike a novel.
If only the characters inspired intrigue. Davey is blank, and mostly dead, so only the girls who haven’t moved on to Orlando Bloom and are still fetishizing Velvet Goldmine will get much out of Rhys Meyers playing vulnerable pretty boy. Meanwhile, Boad is such a cardboard villain that Hodges hardly manages to give McDowell a close-up. (They both should have watched the elder Richard Harris in My Kingdom — then perhaps not bothered with this film.) There’s also another mob boss named Turner (Ken Stott), who spends most of the movie riding around in a limo, being vaguely threatening and occasionally sardonic. And there’s Helen (Charlotte Rampling), Will’s older ex-lover, a restaurateur who accidentally comes across as comic relief, since Hodges apparently instructed the actress to keep her face completely frozen throughout the movie, as if saturated with Botox.
Sadly, this same blankness infects Owen, who is even less emotive than his modelesque leader in King Arthur. Whatever stoicism or emotional paralysis was intended, it really doesn’t serve the actor or the material. Will is a character with potential — the cool killer turned woodsy recluse, caught between worlds and smoldering with grief and rage — but sorry, folks, he’s a crashing bore. Donning a metaphorical mask would have been good, or behaving erratically, spurred on by incongruous motivations, or something. But with Will, the creators merely set the controls on “laconic” and sleepwalk through a conflict with the old gang, the flat finale, even redundant and ridiculously obvious discussions with doctors regarding the impetus and effects of rape.
This is the Achilles’ heel of the movie: It seems to think that the concept of rape being a crime of violence (not sex) is somehow breaking news. While this may startle a few, and it’s a useful societal reminder, it transforms the movie into a PSA against gangster buggery, sort of an Irréversible for the Godfather crowd.
Really, it’s more interesting to consider Will’s chosen occupation outside his life of crime: In the backstory, he became a lumberjack, and clearly a damned enthusiastic one. Here, at least, the script shines with surprising insight. It’s as if Preston subconsciously thought, “Once a killer, always a killer,” for when Will went straight for three years, he turned to clear-cutting — killing trees and forests instead of people. In this sense, observing the constant ravages of a culture based on domination and abuse, the writing strives toward something creepy and unconscious.
The movie also boasts a couple of strengths in gifted supporting players Jamie Foreman (excellent in Nil by Mouth) playing a family friend, and South London veteran thesp Sylvia Syms as (again, apparently) Davey’s landlady, ripped up over his demise. Otherwise this movie is a slow slog, with a lot less down-and-dirty character than most songs by Warren Zevon, from whom it filches its ill-fitting title. Since much cinema is hyperactive and/or shallow crap, many may commend Hodges for his pensive take on harsh, underground “reality,” but bollocks to that. Gimme his Flash Gordon over this absolutely any day.