Most movie thrillers, whether ultimately thrilling or not, initially require an audience to simultaneously follow more than one narrative thread. Someone, for example, is selling drugs to supermodels, while someone else is sitting in the forest having dinner. Their respective ages, demeanors and parental papering couldn't appear more different. Our willingness to give a flying bejebus about both someones is granted in the faith (here's the job of a screenwriter) that said threads will soon knot together into action, intrigue, bloodshed, and bared ... intentions. I can honestly say that, with the exception of Cremaster 3, I don't a recall a film where that knotting is delayed for longer than in I'll Sleep when I'm Dead.
Maybe I missed something. Maybe while I was sitting in the theater going "beebidy-beebidy" with my index finger on my lips, director Mike Hodges (Croupier, Get Carter, Flash Gordon) ran the secret code of the film's interminable opening, or for that matter its title, across the bottom of the screen. If so, I didn't see it, so allow me to start this review somewhere around the 45 minute mark. Will Graham (Clive Owen, the acclaimed forehead of Croupier and King Arthur) is an ex-gangster, now a drifter living in a van. Having abandoned both his lover Helen (Charlotte Rampling, 19 years Owen's senior) and his cherished turd of a younger brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to their own devices, Will has chosen instead to waste his life grieving over his personal demons--the foremost of which is "grief for a wasted life."
All this changes when Davey, an enterprising but largely harmless pill-pusher, is subjected to some "non-consensual buggery" (to use the term preferred by the film's doctor) by a loathable W.C. Fields look-alike named Boad. Played to the hilt by Malcom McDowell, Boad is both in name and attitude the kind of antagonist Dickens would have written about, had he written about man-buggerers. I'm just glad to know of such a perfect name to shout in times of exasperation. Like now: Booooad!
But I'll digress when I'm dead. Davey, for reasons only hinted at (but icky reasons they are) chooses to off himself following his ordeal. Will, upon not receiving an answer to his annual brotherly phone call, must return to the equally Dickensian London slum of Brixton in order to get to the bottom of the buggery. That quest, garnished with misery brought on by his former life, consumes the plot of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.
I admit to loathing Croupier, Hodge's previous hit and the film that made I'll Sleep possible. But the former's flaws--a smarmy script full of holes and clichéd characters hardly worth their ticket stubs--are largely overcome in this minimalist follow-up. Characters like the straight-laced Helen, whose entanglement with a gangster is both puzzling and naughty, and the haunted, unblinking Will stick in the brain post-credits both for their actions and ambiguities. You may not even realize your growing fascination and attachment to them until hours or days later.
The in-theater appeal of Hodge's film can be summed up in the scene where Will finally decides that enacting a Boad-whack is his only viable recourse. Most American directors (I'm thinking Scorcese in particular) would outfit Will with a blunt instrument, or better yet blunt-with-pokey-stuff-on-it, and march him over to Boad's house to bathe both men and most of the surrounding zip code in blood. But Hodges is too composed, too ... I don't want to say British, but I'm thinking it ... to so sully his nice little picture. Instead, scraggly Will leisurely showers, shaves, takes his old gangster clothes, gun and car out of storage, fastidiously cleans all three, and only then totters off to Boad's abode. These actions are all the more interesting because we know there is no reason other a silent, unannounced ritual behind them.
The lesson is that revenge is a dish best served in and tailored Italian wool. For a whack to not be considered just another prosaic murder (the kind Will is, to some degree, avenging), Will must be click into the pantheon of great Hodges leading men of the past. He must become Clive Owen. While Simon Fisher Turner's abstract piano score tinkers like Satie on Quaaludes in the background, a gangster who is so tranquil as to hardly be human purifies himself to wipe out a subhuman killer for the death of someone whose greatest crime was being all-too-human. Maybe Hodges is poking fun at the superiority of style over functionality in organized crime, British organized crime, or even British organized crime cinema, but I suspect something less contrived. Like a good ending is worth working for, both for an audience and a protagonist.