Corrections were made to this review on Aug. 22, 2003.
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is a comatose “Get Carter” with existential ambitions. Essaying a story similar to that of his 1971 cult classic — a man seeks revenge for his brother’s death — Brit helmer Mike Hodges has come up with a consciously anti-dramatic, contempo Western, set in Wales and London, in which echoes of oaters ring loud but without much resonance. Clearly fashioned as a vehicle for Clive Owen, star of Hodges’ “Croupier,” which parlayed a $6 million cult success Stateside while bombing everywhere else, “Sleep” looks a safe bet for only limited release by Paramount Classics next spring, with dozier biz in other territories.
As in most of Hodges’ quirky output, from “Pulp” through “Flash Gordon” to “Croupier,” “Sleep” contains interesting ideas, but often those ideas are not fully realized. Pic, from an original script by TV writer Trevor Preston, is stymied by awkward dialogue and a basic structure in which characters float in a developmental stasis.
First half-hour is basically a long flashback explaining a seashore soliloquy by a man later identified as Will Graham (Owen, hardly recognizable through most of the pic in beard and long locks). Cutting back and forth between the Welsh countryside, where Will is working as an anonymous logger, and London, where younger bro Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is into smalltime coke dealing and snatching money from gullible babes’ purses, film adequately, if leisurely, builds an air of dramatic expectation.
Plot nut finally arrives when Davey, who’s been trailed by a black automobile, is hauled off and sodomized by gangster Boad (Malcolm McDowell). Back at his apartment, Davey lies fully clothed in his tub, where he’s found 12 hours later by a pal, Mickser (Jamie Foreman), with his throat cut.
Script starts to fill in background as Will, let go by his logging boss, decides to return to London and Mickser tries to find him to alert him to his brother’s mysterious death. As Mickser visits Will’s ex, restaurateur Helen (Charlotte Rampling), and is questioned by London crime lord Frank Turner (Ken Stott), it emerges that Will, a onetime legendary hard man, went AWOL three years ago after a nervous breakdown.
So far, so-so. Hodges’ cool direction, amplified by d.p. Mike Garfath’s cold lensing of London’s streets and denizens (all solid blacks and gray light), keeps the viewer’s expectations ticking over, with an array of cockney lowlifes (McDowell, Stott, Foreman) compensating for Owen’s blank performance.
However, the second act continues in much the same vein, as Will finds out about Davey’s death and then meets with some former muscle (Geoff Bell, Desmond Baylis, Kirris Riviere), who warn him he’s no longer got what it takes to hold his own in London’s changed crime scene. Despite that, Will doggedly tries to find what he calls the “why” of his brother’s apparent suicide.
That the audience is at least three reels ahead of the main protagonist in knowing part of the “why” wouldn’t matter if some character development was actually taking place onscreen or the script was venturing into interesting new areas. But the screenplay seems almost intent on not cashing in its dramatic chips: A meeting between Will and Helen leads nowhere, Will’s sesh with a psychological counselor regarding his brother’s rape fails to build on tenuous links between homophobia and male gangsterism, and so on.
When Will finally suits up and sets out to exact revenge, the audience is no more emotionally engaged in his quest than it was at the film’s start. And by the final crawl, aud’s none the wiser.
With the equivalent of a “Get Carter’s” Michael Caine in the lead role, “Sleep” might have risen above the palpable weaknesses in Preston’s script; but though Owen is charismatic enough in his clean-shaven final section, he’s almost a dramatic black hole up to that point. The tightly wound Stott is excellent, as ever, as the new top guy in town, welcoming a chance to take on Will; but McDowell coasts in a familiar sleazeball role, while Foreman, as Will’s colorful sidekick, and Rhys Meyers, as playboy Davey, are only as good as their dialogue.
Hodges has never been a great director of women, and “Sleep” is no exception. Rampling is very low-key in the underwritten part of Will’s ex, while veteran Sylvia Syms pops up in a couple of scenes as Davey’s dotty landlady.
As on “Croupier,” helmer shares a title-card credit with the writer, with pic billed as “A Mike Hodges-Trevor Preston Film.”