By Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News - July 16, 2004
Davey is careless.
He moves around London selling drugs to an upper-crust crowd that probably looks down on him, probably resents his cocky attitude, rooster strut and the ease with which he rips them off.
Through a couple of cruel plot twists in the new British film noir I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) winds up committing suicide. He cuts his throat in his bathtub, where he sits fully clothed in waist-high water.
At that point, his brother (Clive Owen), a tough guy who has suffered a breakdown and withdrawn to the woods of Scotland, returns to London looking for answers. He's determined to hold someone accountable.
Director Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier) delivers another splendidly stylish thriller that's full of dark atmosphere and discordant notes. Hodges, who has made only nine movies in 33 years, is like a jazz musician. He hangs surprising riffs on a familiar melodic frame. He broods with the best of them, and he has terrific command of the movie's dark and gleaming look.
Bearded and ominously quiet through most of the movie, Owen's character returns to London to find out what happened to his kid brother. Owen, currently on view in King Arthur and the star of Hodges' Croupier, gives another solid performance. No flourishes. Just the absolute essentials.
We're never quite sure what made Owen's Will Graham leave town, but the specifics don't matter. He was up to his neck in the self-loathing that comes from wasting a life hanging around with the wrong people.
Hodges populates the movie with characters who sometimes seem to have had the life blanched out of them, as if they're part of an army of walking dead. At times, it seems as if the whole gangster genre is running on vapors, but in Hodges' hands they're beautiful, haunting vapors. Only Davey's pal Mickser (Jamie Foreman) has the spunk of life about him.
A successful gangster (Ken Stott) fears that Will wants to reclaim his turf. Malcolm McDowell plays Boad, the upscale car dealer who's most directly responsible for Davey's death. Charlotte Rampling portrays the owner of a trendy London restaurant and Will's former lover. The connection between them is never entirely clear. It doesn't need to be.
At the heart of this drama is an existential question: Is change possible? Put another way, Hodges seems to be asking whether noir characters can ever escape the noir environment or whether they're fated to meet their destinies no matter how hard they struggle.
It's a fascinating little problem, and it gives Hodges' disquieting movie extra kick.
Let's be frank. It's no longer possible for a gangster movie to take us by total surprise. But Hodges has a virtuoso's touch.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead , opening today at the Starz FilmCenter, is like the playing of a musician in the wee hours of the morning, when there's not much left to drive expression but the refusal to sleep. But, hey, these characters don't need to sleep. They're already living in Hodges' dark, mysterious dream of a movie.
© 2004 Will & Co./LAGOON ENTERTAINMENT LTD
"A British Classic. Richly Atmospheric"
- Ray Bennett, Hollywood Reporter