Mike Hodges pushes film noir to bleak, stylized extremes.
By Kenneth Turan.
Nothing about "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is as straightforward as it appears. A title that echoes vintage mysteries like "I Wake Up Screaming" and a film noir plot conjure up traditional images of tough guy revenge, but things are nowhere near that simple.
What we have instead is a minimalist, almost experimental noir, a stunningly stylized film that is intent on pushing genre boundaries. Bleak, nihilistic, alternately frustrating and unforgettable, it both seduces and challenges us by refusing to play by the rules.
"I'll Sleep" is the latest compelling wrinkle in the atypical working life of British director Mike Hodges, who's made but nine films in a 40-plus-year career. "My CV," he's said, "actually has holes in it like Swiss cheese." Hodges' 1971 Michael Caine-starring "Get Carter" is considered the progenitor of the British wave of modern noirs, but he was not in the best place professionally until 2000's "Croupier," with Clive Owen in the title role, became an art house success in this country.
Hodges has brought Owen with him to "I'll Sleep," and the actor has returned the favor by giving an impeccable demonstration of the power of screen presence. His laconic tough guy, Will Graham, never uses more words than absolutely necessary, but the actor's cool, hypnotic voice as well as the most implacable of stares create a performance the film could not exist without.
Working from a script by the veteran Trevor Preston, Hodges makes use of the prerogatives due a 71-year-old director. He has, in effect, picked and chosen what he prefers to supply from a list of satisfactions the genre traditionally provides, doing what he likes and making us like it.
What Hodges values first of all is arresting visuals. Working with cinematographer Mike Garfath, he's a masterful creator of exquisitely controlled atmosphere and mood, giving a quietly unnerving look to the nocturnal landscapes of the film's gritty South London setting.
Hodges also has a preference for the bleak view of human nature that grows out of the film's ambience. The story he tells is a grim one, somberly but effectively paced, so mythic it could almost be a dream. This is the dark side with a vengeance, and if you like your noir black and pitiless with more than a whiff of menace thrown in, you will be pleased.
That said, there are things that Hodges refuses to do. He sees no reason to make it easy for audiences, and the film's plotting demands attention. Even with that, there is no attempt to tidily package story elements toward a resolution that is either predictable or conventional.
Despite a script with a weakness for the kind of overwriting that "Croupier" never indulged in, the director's ability to pare things down to iconic images and strong emotional beats leads to scenes that are highly charged as well as minimal.
Though it is set in an inescapably violent milieu, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" also refuses to celebrate violence. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who so exults in revenge he happily inflated "Kill Bill" to two parts, Hodges is more torn.
Hodges undeniably feels the lure, the attraction of the violent world, but he also sees it as a trap and is frankly in despair about how hard it is to avoid. He's structured "I'll Sleep" around a savage act of male rape that is presented so unblinkingly that it's clear he wants audiences to be affected and unnerved, to think about violence as something horrifically real, not an ain't-it-cool schoolboy fantasy.
"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" begins not with Will but his younger brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a long way from "Bend It Like Beckham"). He's a conniver, sneak thief and coke dealer to London's beautiful people, someone who views his personal irresistibility as money in the bank.
Not everyone, however, is as pleased with Davey as he is with himself, and a rapid series of disturbing events leads to him being found dead in his bathtub for reasons unknown. His friends are desperate to inform Will, but no one knows where he is.
Once a celebrated London thug "the hardest man I've ever known," in one colleague's admiring words Will turns out to be holed up in a camper in a remote part of Wales, looking, in thick beard and plaid shirt, more like an Earth First! renegade than a former hooligan. He's living off the grid because he could no longer stand his former life, and when a woman he meets tells him that London frightened her, his reply is a wonderfully concise "It can do that."
Will is drawn back to London by a feeling that his brother needs him. Finding out that Davey is dead, he becomes obsessed with finding out why. His return upsets any number of people, including the terrifying Boad (Malcolm McDowell, fire to Owens' ice) and the beautiful Helen (the latest in a series of splendid cameo performances by Charlotte Rampling), who was Will's girlfriend until he left.
The central drama in "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is not only whether Will can unravel the mystery of his brother's death, but also what happens to him in the process, whether he is trapped by implacable forces. Will says he's changed, but a rival tells him, "People like us don't change." Questions like this have been asked before, of course, but almost never in so elegant and iconoclastic a form.
© 2004 LA Times
© 2004 Will & Co./LAGOON ENTERTAINMENT LTD
"A British Classic. Richly Atmospheric"
- Ray Bennett, Hollywood Reporter