I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003)
“For three long years, Will Graham led a quiet life. Things are about to change.”
Director: Mike Hodges
Cast: Clive Owen, Malcolm McDowell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Synopsis: Will Graham is a gangster who has left the life of crime and is living in the countryside. He comes out of hiding to investigate the death of his brother…
Three years ago, Will Graham (Clive Owen) was a successful London gangster, but he turned his back on the life to live in the back of a beat-up old camper van in the middle of nowhere. He keeps himself to himself, picks up manual work for people who don’t ask for social security numbers and P45s. He seems content with his simple lifestyle, and doesn’t get involved in other people’s business. He’s even developed a sense of compassion, as we see when he returns a man he witnesses being beaten in the forest to his anxious wife.
Back in the city, his younger brother, Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), looks set to follow his brother’s former lifestyle. He sells drugs to rich and clueless kids too distanced from the streets to realise he’s ripping them off with extortionate prices. He’s also an opportunist thief, stealing a lighter from a drunken one-night-stand. Although he’s well-liked in the film, he’s not a particularly likeable lad, so our sympathy for him is tempered somewhat when he’s dragged down an alley by two men in dinner suits and anally raped by a third man (Malcolm McDowell) one night for no apparent reason.
Davey staggers home, sits fully-clothed in a bath full of water, and eventually slits his own throat. His body is found by a friend, Mickser (Jamie Foreman), in perhaps the only scene in the movie which contains a genuine display of emotion. Foreman, who is perhaps now more familiar to viewers from his stint as one of the Branning brothers in the down-market BBC soap Eastenders, is very good, both in this scene and throughout the movie, But Mickser is as lairy as they come, and by now we’re starting to get the impression that there isn’t going to be anyone particularly likeable in this flick, and we’re right.
We never really find out what Mickser’s all about, but I got the impression that, had it been he who had stumbled across that beaten up body in the forest, he’d have been just as likely to steal the guy’s wallet as help him home. Mickser visits Helen (Charlotte Rampling), an enigmatic restaurateur with some link to both Will and Davey that the script never bothers to clarify. At first I thought she was the brothers’ mother, but in fact she’s the former lover Will abandoned when he gave up his criminal life. Such is the disparity in their ages that it would have been more believable if she had been his mum. A simple line of dialogue would have been enough to make their relationship clear, but writer Trevor Preston either has unrealistic expectations about his audience’s powers of deduction or he just couldn’t be arsed to join all the dots…
Will returns to the city. Again, what prompts him to do so is never really made clear, but while waiting for a ferry he sees Davey shadow-boxing in a canteen. Don’t ask for an explanation — he just does — and then immediately phones his little brother, but of course receives no reply. On his return to the Smoke, Will starts making enquiries about why his little brother topped himself, but his presence alarms Frank Turner (Ken Stott), the local gangster who filled the gap in the market when Will headed for the hills, and who decides Will must be taken out of the picture permanently.
The plot of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is so generic that, with a few minor alterations, it could be applied to any genre or setting: historical, Western, America or Brazil. It has a certain amount of style, and a lot of moody shots and posturing, but there’s not a lot going on behind it all. Characters come and go. Three ex-stooges of Will — including the ever-dependable Geoff Bell — have one big scene and then are hardly heard from again. A character who is built up as a menacing threat is summarily dismissed with a little lipstick and a bra. The real villain of the piece has no connection to the rest of the story, and his reason for sexually assaulting Davey is so weak as to be laughable.
The final scenes of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead do show a little depth and insight into its lead character that is infuriatingly absent from the rest of the movie, leaving us to wonder whether it’s just a fortunate coincidence. The overall impression is that Preston and director Mike Hodges — who more than forty years before directed Get Carter (1971), to which this bears a passing similarity in terms of storyline, at least — were aiming for a thinking man’s gangster flick. Sadly, they fell well short of the mark.