As its title suggests, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is about a grim, dedicated, yet reluctant gangster with one more task to get done. Will Graham (Clive Owen) is more or less “retired” from the game, following what his associates refer to as a “breakdown.” Shaggily bearded, wearing flannel shirts and faded jeans, he’s living in his van out in the woods, out of touch with all his old friends and enemies. During this murky introductory sequence, Will emerges from the shadows, briefly, to observe someone being beaten by a group of thugs. Only after they take off in their car does he step forward, then stand over the victim, looming and gloomy.
“Most thoughts are memories, and memories deceive,” he says at the outset. “The dead are dead.” The apparent hero of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead doesn’t offer much in the way of heroics, or even remotely admirable behavior. In another movie, Will would be the villain. He works days clearing trees, and when he loses that job because of his shady past, he’s fine with moving on, too. Harsh, disheveled, and resolute, he’s long ago abandoned his restaurateur girlfriend Helen (Charlotte Rampling), and has kept in only minimal touch with his carelessly dissolute younger brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), both remaining behind in London. Will might be feeling guilt for the lives he’s taken, or maybe he’s recovering from that apparently legendary emotional collapse, but in either case, he’s checked out of any sense of responsibility and loyalty. He’s a man unto himself. He’s walked down more than a few mean streets.
And then, the plot kicks in. Out on the town one night, per usual, Davey saunters along sidewalks, sells some drugs, beds a woman he’ll never see again, and by the way, steals cash from her purse while she’s in the other room. Making his way home, he’s grabbed up by a pair of goombahs who hold him down in a dark alley so that their employer, the fearsome Boad (Malcolm McDowell), can rape him. Boad’s precise reasons are unclear, save for the facts that he’s rich, ugly, and audacious, feels wronged in some way that must be monumental (entirely creepy details will emerge by film’s end, reduced, in Boad’s thinking, to “”He was everything that I loathed”), and, let’s be honest, because he’s played by Malcolm McDowell.
Working from Trevor Preston’s script, director Mike Hodges (the 1971 Get Carter, 1999’s Croupier) tends to leave out most of the reasons for anyone’s behaviors, and shows little interest in exposition generally. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a gnarly film noir, and so motives are given and inexplicable at the same time: cruelty begets cruelty, everyone loses. When Will intuits that something has gone horribly wrong for Davey (he starts calling his brother’s answering machine, repeatedly, as he heads back to town), he also realizes that he’s been sucked back into the weird equation of brutality and retribution he so endeavored to leave behind.
On his return, Will learns from Davey’s occasional friend and minder, Mickser (Jamie Foreman), that the kid has killed himself: “No one knows what happened,” moans Mickser, “It’s a fuckin’ mystery, isn’t it?” Not good enough. In order to learn what and why, Will seeks out the coroner, then comprehends his report a little too well for the doctor’s comfort. For Will, the sequence of events is bleakly logical: “Davey was buggered the night before he died,” he blurts out to Mickser, and this explains not only why he cut his own throat, but what must happen next. To achieve this end, Will tracks down his erstwhile crew, who, while confused about his disappearance, are happy to sign on for full allegiance once again, in part because they know nothing else, and in part because Will is just aces at this business. Less enthused about Will’s arrival, local boss Frank Turner (Ken Stott) plots to take him down, just on general principle. Will is a menace, even to the skeeviest of bad guys.
Rattling everyone with his mere presence, Will doesn’t thrill to his power so much as he presumes it. He appears to Helen as if a spirit, she feels him before she sees him standing across the street, watching her close her restaurant. And once they exchange looks, she merely steps back inside, and waits, knowing he will come. Angry that he’s left her, she also knows why — his former “career” was too awful to continue (he describes his existence since as “grief for a life wasted”). Though she urges him to leave again, not to take up the payback and so re-decimate himself, she also knows it’s no use.
For all the inevitability of Will’s descent, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is an almost perversely moving experience. Set against Michael Garfath’s gorgeous, brooding cinematography, Owen embodies an original sort of dreariness. This despite the relentless cliché of Will’s trajectory. Remembering almost exactly what Boad hated about Davey (“The walk, the way he smoked his cigarette, the laugh”), Will has little else. “What’s left to say he was here at all? Not much.”