What can you do with an empty, yet forbidding, urban nightscape? Or with the human face, Clive Owen's face? In Ill Sleep When Im Dead (****), director Mike Hodges, who turns , who turns 72 this month, works chilly wonders for the second time with the hardy, minimalist actor. Even across an epic canvas like King Arthur, the always-precise Owen holds the screen like a simmering Sean Connery and an effortless Cary Grant combined.
After their critical success in 1999's Croupier, they've turned to the austere samurai variation of a seven-year-old script by Hodges' longtime colleague and friend Trevor Preston. (Hodges, as is his custom, shares the "a film by" possessory credit with Preston.) Cinematographer Mike Garfath, who also shot Croupier, works mostly at night and in interiors here, taking the black of noir and adding the blue of bruise.
Behind a formidably forbidding mess of beard, Owen plays Will Graham, who, for better or worse, shares a name with the protagonist of Michael Mann's Manhunter. He's a gangster, a hard man, who had to get out, out of London, and out of crime, and he's lived for three years in a camper in the north of England, off the grid and out of mind. Beloved younger brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an incautious and womanizing smalltime coke dealer is stalked and raped-what a coroner calls "non-consensual buggery," which was once the British legal term for male rape.
Malcolm McDowell plays Boad, the cold, older family man who resents Davey's youth and beauty. Boad sees Davey, charmed and charming, at a party and puts it in mind: I will destroy him. ("He was everything I loathed I wanted to show him what he was Nothing Nothing... He was less than nothing.") In his humiliation, Davey apparently kills himself in his bath. Enter: Will.
Consider that silence as well: the things you cannot know about another person: fears, weaknesses, guilt. (Despite several characters' venturing or denial, including the coroner's observation that, like most male rape victims, Davey ejaculated, the movie never pins down his sexuality.)
Can you be "both cerebral and muscular," as the 2004 Sundance program notes suggested? We're right at the corner of asperity and pretension in this elliptical, slow burn revenge tale. (I like the view from there.)
Hodges, who shot several documentaries about his favored filmmakers in the 1960s, is open in his praise for the French directors Robert Bresson and Jean-Pierre Melville, never great box office or consistently big on the laughs.
Meeting Hodges early one morning this year at Sundance was to meet a bubbling-over cinephile, citing examples from Jean-Luc Godard, for his relentless invention; Bresson, for the savor of sound; and Melville, for his dissection of male codes of honor (as well the caged parakeet from Le Samourai that hops restlessly in Davey's empty flat.)
Comparisons to Hodges' own, near-nihilist Get Carter (1970) are also inevitable, as are ones to Steven Soderbergh's memorably sleek yet scrambled The Limey (1999). But the methodical feel of Hodges' pictures is singular. Hodges shoots quick and lean. He has a marvelous, refined eye for how to use interiors to indicate psychological displacement, often by revealing the depths of a space only after we have been seen smaller bits. Choices of set and prop design are unusually telling, as well, significant without being unduly showy. (The bathroom where Davey dies is claustrophobic as hell.) He constructs a mood of gloom instead of relying on propulsive plotting and easily described twists. He also captures something rarely seen: the look and chilly wetness of the Brixton backstreets of London late at night when they're unpeopled.
The movie's been read by some as homophobic, rather than reflecting primal fear. Hodges laughed as he confessed to me, "I think if I sat down to write a script of my own, I wouldn't necessarily write one about male rape."
Preston, who came to writing after scrapes with a criminal element, suggested to Hodges, the director says, as he does in his screenplay, that for a certain criminal class, such a violation "undermines the whole of their personality."
Other performances are lovingly measured as well, notably, Charlotte Rampling as Helen, an abandoned former lover of Will's. There's a dimly lit scene in her café where she asks why he's come back, why he's exposing himself to his former cohorts and enemies. What is that lost expression on that face she loved? "It's grief for a life wasted. And now there's Davey, another fucking wasted life. And I'm going to find out why."
Like most of the movie's terse bursts of dialogue, it's blunt, broody stuff and lovely. "Look at what I've become," Will says in perhaps his most sustained eruption. "I sometimes don't speak to another living soul for days, weeks, always on the move. I trust nothing. No one. And it has nothing to do with escape."
If that sounds like your cup of hemlock, you're in for an unflinching treat, a chilly masterpiece.
© 2004 Will & Co./LAGOON ENTERTAINMENT LTD
"A British Classic. Richly Atmospheric"
- Ray Bennett, Hollywood Reporter