Judge Adam Arseneau thinks this is the worst James Bond film title yet.
For three long years, Will Graham led a quiet life. Things are about to change.
As far as existential neo-noir crime films on the subject of nonconsensual buggery go, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is the best of the bunch. It might be the only example of the genre ever to have been created, but that is beside the point. Number One is Number One, after all.
Facts of the Case
London, with its smoky streets and flickering lights is a city of the night, and nobody ruled the night like Will Graham. Smooth, suave, and ruthless, his band of cronies had a firm grip on the underbelly of London, living like kings without consequence. Will was respected, admired, and feared as the toughest man around, and nobody ever messed with him. He ran the town.
Then, suddenly, Will vanishes without a trace, abandoning his gangster lifestyle completely. His gang goes into remission, his ex-girlfriend receives the occasional enigmatic letter from him, and the city simply moves on without him. After three years, a new boss has taken over control of the streets, and Will becomes the stuff of legend, an almost-forgotten figure, his name kept alive through his charismatic younger brother Davey.
Davey has the looks, the confidence, the style, and the charm to weasel his way into the upper-class echelon of the London nightlife, and shake it down for the coins that fall out. He attends the fancy parties and pushes drugs to the rich socialites and blonde bombshells, then takes them home for a night of fun and pinches their wallets before leaving. He is well loved by his friends and tolerated by his enemies, as the specter of Will looms over him like a protecting shroud. Nobody would dare make a move on Davey, for fear of awakening the absent giant that is Will.
Then one night, Davey is discovered in a bathtub full of blood, having taken his own life by slitting his throat. His friends are stunned and at an absolute loss to explain this tragedy. Davey had it all: women, money, respect—why on earth would he do such a thing? Worse, nobody can even find Will to tell him about his brother's death…not that anyone really looks forward to that particular task. The new gang lords who control the city begin to stir restlessly, fearful of what Will might do if he comes back. His friends stir restlessly, not having the faintest idea what Will is likely to do when he finds out about his brother's death. And both enemies and friends alike agree: nobody wants to find out the answer to these questions.
It turns out Will Graham has been off the map for the last three years, living out of his van, working odd jobs and going weeks without human contact. He has grown a beard, wears filthy clothes, and lives a despairing existence. Having tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with his brother, he shows up in town for answers, and discovers the terrible news. Immediately, he wants to know why his brother died the way he died, above all else. He wants the truth, no matter how horrible it might be. He comes back to town burning with intensity, with an insatiable lust to understand his brother's death.
Though Will had abandoned his old life in every way, his presence in London sends spasms of anxiety throughout the underworld. His old friends turn resentful, his ex-lover turns cold, and the gang lords stir nervously in their seats at the sight of Will prowling the streets again. Will ignores it all. He no longer cares about anything but finding answers. Though Will might not be the man he once was, when he wants a question answered, it gets answered…
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, aside from taking its name from the list of rejected James Bond film titles, is bound to inadvertently irritate a great number of people. Directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier) and starring Clive Owen (Closer, King Arthur, The Hire), and with its story of revenge and gangsters (and main actor in the running for a 007 nametag), it is certainly conceivable that a viewer could get the wrong impression about this film. In short, an action movie this ain't. It's slow, languid, morose, nihilistic, and minimalist, with hardly any dialogue, music, or character developments. Given the same material to work with, other films might yell, scream, make things explode, and have emotions racing on the surface like stock cars to tell the tale, but I'll Sleep When I'm Dead plods, dwells, and hangs out in dimly-lit alleyways smoking crumpled cigarettes, staring sulkily out into the London night.
We are given precious little information about the character's past or motivations. Instead, we are simply thrust into the story with paltry understanding of events. Slowly the pieces begin to fall into place, but this is not the kind of film that answers every piddling question or ties up every small loose end. It has no problems being enigmatic, evasive, and deliberately obtuse, or just plain outright keeping things from us. Like any good noir film, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead emphasizes style, atmosphere, and mood with such overwhelming skill as to negate all questions and unresolved issues. We cannot know the answer to why Will acts the way he acts, or does the things he does, because Will himself is still figuring things out.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is the slow, deliberate, and melancholic tale of a gangster coming to terms with himself after the fact, and we are simply along for the elegant ride. The film is masterful in its execution, methodically creating a morose, nihilistic world of dimly lit streetlights and back alleys, broken hearts and lost dreams. But most of all, it is impressively calculating and methodical; every shot is articulated with care, every facial expression speaks volumes, and every scrap of dialogue has significance. There is nary a wasted shot, music cue, or sentence in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, and as the final confrontation unfolds slowly and predictably, we realize the confrontation itself is metaphysical rather than a simple gunfight—after all, revenge is a complicated affair. The film has an intimidating level of efficiency, due in part to its exceptionally well crafted script.
If you have failed to read between the lines, I shall lay it all out for you. This is a fantastic movie, brilliantly executed and masterfully assembled into a tense melodramatic tale of revenge, lost loves, abandoned lives, and nihilistic dismay; a freakish combination of art-house existentialism and hard-boiled revenge served gangster-style. Dragged inexorably back into the world that he had tried to leave behind, Will Graham returns as an antihero, a silent figure enigmatic in his motivations. In the process of his investigating the death of his brother, we see Will exploring the motivations and justifications for abandoning his old life, even though these ruminations are rarely shared directly with the audience. Instead, we catch a tiny twitch in the eye, or a small shadow cast upon a face, rather than a tearful confession or long soliloquy. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is a movie of suggestions and innuendo, especially where Clive Owen is concerned. He has a disproportionately small amount of lines in the film compared to other characters, but he has no need for speaking most of the time. He simply looks at you, and you know the score. Though the cast is filled with veteran screen actors like Malcolm McDowell and Charlotte Rampling who perform quite brilliantly, their parts are relatively small, and all the glory goes to Clive Owen, who carries this film on his back down to the corner store to buy a quart of milk and back again.
Owen plays the role of ex-gangster with freakish intensity, and his dead-fish gaze on a happy day scares the crap out of me. In I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, he looks scruffy and maladjusted, with a predatory look that seems to size up characters as if measuring the dimensions of their skeletal structure, as if discerning whether they would look good mounted above his mantelpiece. We get hints of Will's past in the film itself, but based solely on the disconcerted reactions of his friends and enemies on news of his arrival back in town, Will must have been a scary mother indeed. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead gives us the absolute minimum of material to work with, but elegantly fills in the cracks as the film progresses for those who are prepared to give themselves up to the story, allow it to gently wash around their feet at its languid pace. Though the subject matter is morose (and let's face it, kind of a downer), the film is so refreshing in its pacing and development, so dynamic in its take on revenge and self-fulfillment, that it creates intensity and excitement without ever having to do intense and exciting things. Not an easy trick to pull off, I assure you.
Visually, the DVD is an absolute stunner. The expertly crafted cinematography is beautifully subtle, perfectly capturing the gloom of London after dark, with immaculate black levels so well defined as to make a grown man weep. Considering that the majority of the film is shot under street lamps and in heavy night conditions, the film is remarkably clear and grain-free—some grain creeps in occasionally, but this is simply unavoidable. Colors are deep, and the film is as clean and undamaged as a fresh egg. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead comes with a transfer that could make other DVDs jealous sitting beside it on the shelf, bowing their tiny plastic heads in awe at its majesty. I could have hated this film with an ever-loving passion, vomiting bile directly onto the DVD case as I watched it, disgusted with absolutely every single moment in the film…but still I could watch the film over and over just to marvel at its austere beauty. In short: When I grow up, I want to look this good on DVD.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track sounds divine, and matches the subtle flow of the movie—perhaps a bit too well. While the track is clear, crisp, and detailed as all get-out, it is remarkably centered on the front channels, with only the most extreme environmental noises and music cues registering in the rear channels. As I watched the film, distressed by the absence of any sound in the rear channels, I actually started checking the cabling on my speakers to make sure I had not accidentally jostled them loose. I wish I were kidding about that. On the one hand, it is a shame that the film was not mixed more appropriately to make better use of the channels, but on the other hand, this is a great-sounding disc. Dialogue is always crystal clear, and the minimalist audio track and score are rendered with perfect clarity and definition, with very nice atmospheric bass response. For those less inclined to the surround sound, a Dolby Digital 2.0 track is also included, which sounds virtually identical but seems to be presented slightly more aggressively. If the subtlety of the 5.1 track is lost upon you, the 2.0 track should be more to your liking, with slightly improved bass response and more active activity in the rear channels.
The subtitles are spot on and have no problem keeping pace with the minimalist dialogue; all in all, this is a fantastic DVD presentation. The only flaw in this otherwise immaculate package is the complete and utter lack of any substantial supplementary material. All we get are five preview trailers, and to rub the salt further in the eyes, they are stuck immediately at the start of the disc and must be individually skipped one at a time. This, in a single word, sucks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In a perverse way, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead does play like another segment on Clive Owen's audition tape for the role of James Bond (right down to the terrible hokey film title), but I say again: If ye come into the film expecting some sort of high-octane spy thriller, ye shall be sorely disappointed. In searching for the key to his brother's downfall, Will hopes to find salvation for his own past and come to terms with his grief for a life wasted…not blow up luxury British automobiles and drink dry martinis. This is a slow and languid film that could easily be mistaken for dull, pretentious, and absolutely boring…which, in a way, I admit, it is.
…If you were a fool, that is. But nobody who reads this website is a fool. So don't worry about it.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is an unexpected delight of a picture. Sophisticated and languid with fantastic acting, gorgeous cinematography and a compelling story; a film completely devoid of bells and whistles, stripped down to its barest emotions and motivations with no flash or distraction to hide behind.
This is the kind of film most filmmakers are not brave enough to make. Luckily, somebody was indeed brave enough, and the result is one of the best films of the year.
An absolutely sodding brilliant film. Not guilty, plus the court gives the film free candy.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2004 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.