I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD is from GET CARTER director Mike Hodges three decades later, and kind of about the same thing, and it’s amazing how much of a similar tone it has in such a different era. It could almost be a remake. But not the one with Stallone.
Having starred in CROUPIER for Hodges five years earlier, Clive Owen plays Will Graham, a mysterious beardo guy who lives in a van out in the woods, pissing in a bucket. He has a younger brother, Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, TITUS, MATCH POINT), who still lives in London. He’s a guy who goes to parties and sells coke to rich girls. We watch him doing his thing one night and watch somebody else watching him, and we wait for whatever bad somebody to do whatever they’re obviously gonna do to him.
I gotta say, it was not what I expected. Walking down the street he (SPOILER) gets grabbed by two thugs, dragged into an alley and warehouse, and held down by two guys while Malcolm McDowell rapes him. Jesus!
They cut away quickly, but it’s not so merciful because then they linger on the miserable aftermath. Stumbling home in pain. Hiding from his landlord Mrs. Bank (Sylvia Syms). Humiliated. Puking. Sitting in the bath tub with his clothes on, bleeding.
He ends up (SPOILER) killing himself. His best friend Mickser (Jamie Foreman, LAYER CAKE), who finds the body, wants to notify Will, but nobody knows where he is, not even his aggrieved, abandoned ex Helen (Charlotte Rampling, BABYLON A.D.). He only comes into town after Davey doesn’t answer his calls for an extended period of time. It’s immediately clear that he did something in the past that makes it dangerous for him to show his face. A crime boss named Turner (Ken Stott, THE HOBBIT trilogy) has some complaints, at least.
Mickser is happy to see Will, all things considered, as are his three crime buddies, even though “he looks like a fuckin pikey” and they can’t believe he doesn’t drink anymore. He explains that he’s not getting back into the game, but he also doesn’t accept the conventional wisdom that there’s no way to know why Davey killed himself. He conducts an independent investigation into the people and places his brother visited that night, which leads him to discovering what happened and then to the ol’ revenge.
There’s an odd detail to these characters: they’re into jazz. Davey has a poster of John Coltrane in their apartment. Mickser, on the fateful night, left Davey a voicemail about going to see Terence Blanchard. Davey is picked up by a weirdo cab driver (Tim Plester, LOCKOUT) who’s playing some kind of noisy experimental jazz, and instead of complaining, as most gangster movie characters would, he says “Sweet! Turn it up!” Will meets his old crime associates in a closed jazz club. I’m not sure if he owns it or what.
I like this touch because to me liking jazz is cool, but there’s definitely something nerdy about it, especially for white dudes. It implies (but doesn’t necessarily prove) some level of cultural sophistication or intellectualism, both now frowned upon in our idiocracy and definitely not traditionally macho (except as Clint’s or Chow Yun Fat’s Badass Juxtaposition). That this party boy addict drug dealer is excited by the music in the taxi – that he has a passion outside of making money – makes me reconsider my assumptions about him, makes him seem more like a fallen little brother and less like just some low life.
And the style of the movie is kinda like jazz fan criminals: it’s tough, yet unafraid to show sophistication and subtlety. Like GET CARTER or its nephew THE LIMEY this is all about tone and tension, a sustained build-up to a badass but quick and somewhat ambiguous payoff. It’s quiet, the music (by Simon Fisher-Turner) alternates between jazzy and eerie, the people feel real, they don’t talk when they don’t need to talk or explain what doesn’t need to be explained. There are sad, human moments, like Mickser trying to revive Davey’s obviously dead body, or Mrs. Bank feeling guilty for renting out his apartment as they’re going through his things. But also Owen plays the classic Clive Owen badass, the serious guy with the low voice and the cold, tired eyes, who clearly has a plan he feels no obligation to share with you. The guy who starts to leave the room and you tell him off and he stops with his back turned to you and listens but then when you’re done he continues out the door without ever turning back around.
We relate to both Will’s heartsickness about being involved in a violent lifestyle and his vengeful fury at the man who raped his brother, who lives well with a normal family and friends who as far as we know think he’s a good person. Will watches from outside in the dark as they smile and laugh and pour wine. And when Will makes him explain why he did it it’s not even like “he moved in on my territory,” it’s worse. I don’t think this guy is even a crime figure, he may just be a legitimate car salesman who also rapes a dude. It’s some kind of childish jealousy based on watching him, hating him from afar without even knowing him. Without talking records with him.
I have to admit, at first I thought Helen was supposed to be their estranged mother. With Rampling being 18 years older than Owen it would be possible. But once I realized they had been in love I thought it was pretty progressive and effective casting. The age gap kinda makes questions about their vague backstory more interesting.
I also have to admit that the lack of a clear resolution to her story left me scratching my head enough that I decided to brave the dangerous waters of the IMDb message boards to see what other people had to say. I was convinced by this explanation, that she must sit on the stairs all night with the hitman waiting for Will, but he’s not coming because he’s ashamed of what he did.
But this is my favorite IMDb review of the movie:
I had to screengrab that for future use because you can pretend it’s talking about any movie ever.
It turns out many of the IMDb message board types absolutely hated I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD, which they found boring, and further research shows that it got largely negative reviews from critics. I thought it was great and just assumed it was obvious that it was good. But I suppose it’s the type of Arthouse Badass style that appeals to me more than the next guy. It’s a simple story, but part of its power is that it doesn’t come out and explain everything to you. You just have to watch and listen and sort of piece together who Will was before, why he doesn’t want to be that again, what other people think about him.
Screenwriter Trevor Preston previously wrote WHAT THE PEEPER SAW and SLAYGROUND, the very loose, not very good adaptation of the Parker novel where he gets stuck in a closed amusement park trying to retrieve some money he ditched there. Hodges also directed FLASH GORDON and MORONS FROM OUTER SPACE.
This review is for Jan, a generous supporter and penpal who sends me his Christmas CDs every year and wanted me to see this so bad he sent me the DVD. Sorry I took so long to get to it, Jan.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.