Mike Hodges, whose recent “Croupier” was well-received Stateside, remains best known for his 1971 underworld classic “Get Carter,” starring Michael Caine.
Like that film, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is about a toughened criminal who returns to his home to find out why his brother is dead. The new film is a far more mature work, however, filled with slow menace but also deep regret over life’s inevitabilities.
With the summer blockbusters proving limply familiar, the rich character development and inventive surprises here may prove satisfying to audiences prepared to tackle a film that takes for granted their understanding that in some stories the ending doesn’t need to be told.
One-time legendary hard man Will Graham (Clive Owen) has been gone from London’s criminal underbelly for three years. Living in a van, he works pickup jobs as a logger in faraway forests. Left behind are a charming scoundrel of a brother, Davey, and an elegant mistress, Helen (Charlotte Rampling). The manor he ran with an iron fist has been taken over by another hard man named Frank Turner (Ken Stott).
But Davey, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“Bend It Like Beckham”), has been selling cocaine to the beautiful people, and his insouciance and winning charm catch the resentful eye of a bad man. Boad (Malcolm McDowell) is well off and married, but his ferocious envy leads him to assault and bugger Davey, who is destroyed by the rape and commits suicide.
Away in his solitude, Graham’s constantly churning memories prompt him to call Davey. When he hears nothing, he returns to London. When Helen can’t figure out what she sees in Graham’s bearded, haunted features, he says: “It’s grief for a life wasted. And now there’s Davey, another f—-ing wasted life. And I’m going to find out why.”
But while Graham pursues the man responsible for his brother’s despair, the new hard man on the patch is looking for Graham. The conflict is laid out in almost mythic terms, with the fate-driven purpose of a classic Western or samurai tale.
An actor to watch
Already noted for “Croupier” and currently filming the title role in “King Arthur,” Owen has a star-making role here — handsome, intelligent and all coiled anger — and he grabs it. He’s already been tipped as the next James Bond, and though he may be too big a star by the time Pierce Brosnan steps down, there’s a scene in “When I’m Dead,” where Graham emerges clean-shaven and expensively tailored, that suggests 007 is his for the taking.
Rhys Meyers, too, further enhances his career with an eye-catching performance as the flamboyantly smooth-edged ruffian younger brother. Rampling adds to her recent catalog of intriguing women, and McDowell plays his villain with understated fury.
Trevor Preston’s screenplay charts a course that leads to unforeseen paths along the way to a conclusion that we can imagine but do not see. A key aspect of the story that he explores in ways that prove unsettling is that Davey is found to have ejaculated when he was raped. That apparently common occurrence throws a massive and confusing wrench into the self-regard of the male-bonding tough guys. The finish, too, is enigmatic, but in the hands of Hodges, with his masterful touch in conveying how deep run the rivers of regret, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” may take its place with “Get Carter” as a classic British gangster film.