Noir is something that will hopefully never go out of style. It’s far too cool to just disappear off the face of the earth without a trace of hope that it may return. There’s so many interesting things you can do with the noir genre, and Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead certainly does something different to it. Hodges may best be known for directing the British gangster classic Get Carter, so it was exciting to see what he would do with a more modern gangster/noir film. Well, the result is many things. It’s weird, boring, tedious, and strangely thought provoking.
Will Graham (Clive Owen) was a notorious gangster before suffering some mysterious mental breakdown that prompted to leave London and start a new life as a drifter devoid of any complicated moral responsibilities. This decision to leave town is met with the risk of leaving his irresponsible brother, Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Myers) to fend for himself. After a night of partying and an especially brutal encounter with a car salesman named Boad (Malcolm McDowell), Davey is found dead in his bathtub of an apparent suicide which prompts Will to return to London to get to the bottom of what happened to cause Davey to do such a thing. Coming back to his old city starts some trouble with his old friends, relationships, and enemies, but Will’s main goal is to track down whoever is responsible for pushing his brother over the edge.
As far as gangster movies go, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is about as minimalist as you can get. The pace of this movie is deathly slow and the overall mood is so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. Along with the whole noir aspect, there’s also touches of New Wave and British Realism thrown in, which is an odd combination to mix with noir. I’m not saying this is really a bad thing, but it does make for a movie that isn’t really too much fun to watch. The not even two hour run time feels stretched to the lenghths of Goodfellas‘ run time with so many scenes of quiet conversations and brooding moments of Will walking down the dark London streets. Since there are so many scenes like this, the conflicts of the movies often feel minimized to a huge degree.
When I say that there is very little conflict in this movie, I sort of mean it, but at the same time I recognize the other kinds of conflict. For example, we hardly see Boad in the movie. He gets maybe 10 minutes of screen time in total. There’s also another gangster that feels threatened by Will’s return, but we only ever see him talking to people in his car and nothing ever really comes out of his storyline besides an ending that serves to confuse the viewer. The conflict really lies in Will’s character and his troubles readjusting to life in the city while also trying to stay clear of his criminal past. This is hard since he wants revenge for his little brother. This movie’s really about inner conflict and regression, rather than a simple revenge story. Like I said before, this movie isn’t really fun to watch. It’s more fun to talk and think about it once it’s over.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a pretty deep movie, but it’s important to remember that just because a movie is super slow doesn’t mean it’s super intelligent. There are plenty of interesting points in this movie, but the execution of them feels so slight that they might as well not have happened at all. The main force of pain for Davey is one of the most daunting things to ever happen to somebody, and it’s something that I don’t see in movies too much. There’s a very interesting premise that almost makes up for the whole movie. The rest of the ideas and conflicts either get fixed to soon or conclude in the most enigmatic of ways. I get that was the whole point of the movie, and I’m not meant to feel satisfied at the end, but I don’t know, it just didn’t feel right.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a strange exercise in low key film making and it’s one that doesn’t really mix all that well. The acting and the dialogue is all great, and the premise takes a story that could be generic and makes it more interesting. The only problem is that it movies too slow, thinks it’s making a much bigger and complicated statement than it actually is, and resolves conflict too easily or not at all. It’s not completely ruined or wasted, but I wanted a little bit more out of it. I can’t really recommend watching it, but some people may find it interesting.