In film noir, youre doomed if you do and doomed if you dont. The overpowering inevitability of failure and death is the genres lifeblood, and it seeps into every grimy back alley and grungy apartment in Ill Sleep When Im Dead, Mike Hodges cool, intensely morose follow-up to his stunning Croupier. Raw and nasty, the filmabout a reformed gangster who returns to his criminal stomping ground to avenge a murderintently examines humanitys darkest impulses while hinting that our choices are not fully our own, and turns a conventional genre set-up into a sleek, dreamy, jet-black treatise on the immutability of mans vicious nature.
Hodges, working from a bleak Trevor Preston script, is fascinated by the aspirations, desires, and base compulsions that propel societys murderous fringe population. As in Jean-Pierre Melvilles quintessential 1967 neo-noir Le Samourai, Ill Sleep When Im Deads protagonist is a no-nonsense killer who, like Japans warrior class, is bound to adhere to an unspoken code of honor (criminal and personal) he cannot reject. Will Graham (Clive Owen) had run Londons underworld until, besieged by guilt and regret, he deserted his loyal restaurateur girlfriend Helen (Charlotte Rampling) and mischievous artful dodger brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) for the countryside in order to cope with his grief for a life wasted. Three years later and partially hidden underneath a scruffy woodsman beard and baggy flannel shirts, Will lives a solitary existence of quiet serenity, untouched by the vileness of his previous life and intentas he proves after altruistically transporting a brutally beaten stranger home to his wifeon becoming something approximating a compassionate person.
Uninterested in the chronological neatness of traditional narrative, Hodges begins his film by fluidly intercutting scenes of Will holed up in his beat-up white van (which functions as both his home and sanctuary from the outside world) and being fired from his woods-clearing job with those of Davey selling coke at a posh party and, while walking back to his city flat, being raped by a wealthy car dealership owner named Boad (Malcolm McDowell). A shot of Wills van surrounded by unbroken traffic lines on an empty street suggests his inabilitydespite his best efforts to alienate himself from the pastto successfully change the course of his life, and the characters subsequent vision of Davey immediately draws him back to London, where he learns that his brother had slit his throat while fully clothed in a bathtub rather than deal with the shame of being sexually violated by a man. Wills search for the dangerously insecure Boad is born from his irrefutable sense of duty toward his brother, and from an overpowering repulsion toward the random, disgusting malice of the world.
Upon his return, Will is greeted with frustration by his old crewwho dont take to his new detached disposition and warn him that people like us dont change, not reallyand with suspicion by crime boss Frank Turner (Ken Stott), who fears that the long-absent crook will want to reclaim his turf. Hodges flips back and forth between these characters and story strands with elliptical, trance-like agility, carefully revealing past and future glimpses of the story to create an atmosphere of ethereal portentousness that throws into question whether individual scenes are real, dreams, or as implied by Wills statement at the films onset that Most thoughts are memories, and memories deceive, one mans untrustworthy recollections. Aided by Michael Garfaths lush, inky cinematography and Simon Fisher-Turners use of atonal jazz as a dissonant complement to the disquieting urban setting, Hodges enmeshes his tortured protagonists in an asphalt jungle thats an interminable breeding ground of degradation and wickedness. The city is alive with the stench of moral and physical corruption, and Will, Davey, Boad, and Daveys faithful friend Mickser (Jamie Foreman) are all hopelessly stuck in the muck.
I just want the truth, Will intones to a coroner hes hired to perform a second post-mortem on Davey, but discovering the truth also means succumbing to the long-dormant fury he knows will inexorably lead to murder. Like his 1971 Get Carter, Hodges Ill Sleep When Im Dead involves a hired killer returning to his urban hometown to investigate his brothers death. Yet whereas Michael Caines Carter undergoes no transformation throughout his quest, Owens Will (like the actors character Jack Manfred in Croupier) is not only tortured by his reversion to killing, but is also afforded the opportunity (however transitory and unrealistic) for escape from his fate by Ramplings Helen, who begs her former lover to leave the city it will destroy you! Shes correct, of course, as Wills predictable journey back from self-imposed exileculminating in an allegorical rebirth via a professional shave and wardrobe makeovercan only conclude in one way. Wills chillingly hollow gaze, never once interrupted by so much as a blink, reflects the fatalistic characters recognition that he has no choice but to resume the life he fled, and thus his wasted opportunity to revise his destiny colors his single-minded pursuit of Boad with melancholic despair and, in the process, transforms him into a figure of mythic tragedy.
After finally cornering his prey, Will demands to know why his brother was so heinously assaulted, and Boads explanation includes nearly the same list of Daveys characteristics that Will himself eulogistically intones in voiceover (a Hodges trademark) during the repeated, identical scenes that bookend the film: He was everything that I loathed. The clothes, the walk, the talk, the lies, the way he smoked. As Hodges bleak film solemnly imparts, ones inherent personality can be simultaneously attractive and repulsive, but never fundamentally altered. Whats left to say he was here at all? Not much, Will says about Davey (and, perhaps, himself) while standing near the ocean in this stark mirror image of the films opening scene, a lament that exemplifies Ill Sleep When Im Deads vision of life as fleeting and futile. Revenge may be attainable, Hodges illustrates in this final act of temporal reshuffling, but no matter what path you choose, everyone ultimately winds up right back where they started.
© slant magazine, 2004.
© 2004 Will & Co./LAGOON ENTERTAINMENT LTD
"A British Classic. Richly Atmospheric"
- Ray Bennett, Hollywood Reporter