I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

By Carla Meyer
San Francisco Chronicle, July 9, 2004

Former criminal dips back into old life
Mike Hodges on familiar turf with stylish drama

Mood and portent can conceal any number of flaws in movies about the thug life. In “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” master of stylish criminality Mike Hodges (“Croupier,” “Get Carter”) presents a nighttime London of sharp suits, distorted jazz notes and shiny luxury sedans cruising dirty streets. He does this with such elan that it’s possible to overlook a thin plot and chunks of stilted dialogue.
The script by Trevor Preston centers on an archetype: a former crime boss (Clive Owen, from “Croupier” and “King Arthur”) forced back into the game. Owen’s Will had renounced the criminal life and become a flannel-clad tree trimmer, but he must avenge a crime against his little brother. The brother (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a small-time drug dealer and big-time dandy, was raped by a rich sadist (a snarling Malcolm McDowell) as an act of comeuppance.

The unforeseen repercussions of this crime are doubly disturbing because Rhys-Meyers (the soccer coach from “Bend It Like Beckham”) has created an indelible character. Slim and lush-lipped, Rhys-Meyers gives this hedonist enough charm and unbridled zest that his fate matters. The actor turns the young man’s trip home the morning after the crime into an odyssey of heartbreak. Jacket clutched to chest, he limps through dank alleyways, his last vestiges of innocence obliterated.

Owen is mostly required to look determined, as Will returns to town and delves into what happened to the kid. His presence creates unease in the criminals who have taken control in Will’s absence and imbues the picture with palpable anxiety. The new crime boss, played with insecurity and entitlement by Ken Stott, threatens Will through a lowered tinted window. Will reacts as if swatting away a fly.

There’s never a question of what will happen, only when, but Hodges still defies convention. A sequence of Will’s transformation from scruffy tree trimmer back to smooth criminal happens with the wave of a barber’s towel, sparing us the symbolism of his shaggy beard being removed.

By contrast, a subplot involving Will and a restaurateur played by Charlotte Rampling is simply leaden. Apparently, the two were lovers, but their manner is oddly formal in their first meeting after three years apart. Will, a killer from the lower classes, suddenly sounds like an Oxford grad on a therapist’s couch: “I trust nothing. No one. And it has nothing to do with escape.” She in turn laments Will’s “shaming difficulty in not believing you cannot be loved.” A simple hello apparently wouldn’t do. Rampling, usually an actress of stunning command, seems lost in this movie.

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