In film noir, you’re doomed if you do and doomed if you don’t. The overpowering inevitability of failure and death is the genre’s lifeblood, and it seeps into every grimy back alley and grungy apartment in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Mike Hodges’s cool, intensely morose follow-up to his stunning Croupier. Raw and nasty, the film—about a reformed gangster who returns to his criminal stomping ground to avenge a murder—intently examines humanity’s darkest impulses while hinting that our choices are not fully our own, and turns a conventional genre setup into a sleek, dreamy, jet-black treatise on the immutability of man’s vicious nature.
Hodges, working from a bleak Trevor Preston script, is fascinated by the aspirations, desires, and base compulsions that propel society’s murderous fringe population. As in Jean-Pierre Melville’s quintessential 1967 neo-noir Le Samourai, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead‘s protagonist is a no-nonsense killer who, like Japan’s warrior class, is bound to adhere to an unspoken code of honor (criminal and personal) he cannot reject. Will Graham (Clive Owen) had run London’s underworld until, besieged by guilt and regret, he deserted his loyal restaurateur girlfriend Helen (Charlotte Rampling) and mischievous artful dodger brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) for the countryside in order to cope with his “grief for a life wasted.” Three years later and partially hidden underneath a scruffy woodsman beard and baggy flannel shirts, Will lives a solitary existence of quiet serenity, untouched by the vileness of his previous life and intent—as he proves after altruistically transporting a brutally beaten stranger home to his wife—on becoming something approximating a compassionate person.
Uninterested in the chronological neatness of traditional narrative, Hodges begins his film by fluidly intercutting scenes of Will holed up in his beat-up white van (which functions as both his home and sanctuary from the outside world) and being fired from his woods-clearing job with those of Davey selling coke at a posh party and, while walking back to his city flat, being raped by a wealthy car dealership owner named Boad (Malcolm McDowell). A shot of Will’s van surrounded by unbroken traffic lines on an empty street suggests his inability—despite his best efforts to alienate himself from the past—to successfully change the course of his life, and the character’s subsequent vision of Davey immediately draws him back to London, where he learns that his brother had slit his throat while fully clothed in a bathtub rather than deal with the shame of being sexually violated by a man. Will’s search for the dangerously insecure Boad is born from his irrefutable sense of duty toward his brother, and from an overpowering repulsion toward the random, disgusting malice of the world.
Upon his return, Will is greeted with frustration by his old crew—who don’t take to his new detached disposition and warn him that “people like us don’t change, not really”—and with suspicion by crime boss Frank Turner (Ken Stott), who fears that the long-absent crook will want to reclaim his turf. Hodges flips back and forth between these characters and story strands with elliptical, trance-like agility, carefully revealing past and future glimpses of the story to create an atmosphere of ethereal portentousness that throws into question whether individual scenes are real, dreams, or as implied by Will’s statement at the film’s onset that “Most thoughts are memories, and memories deceive,” one man’s untrustworthy recollections. Aided by Michael Garfath’s lush, inky cinematography and Simon Fisher-Turner’s use of atonal jazz as a dissonant complement to the disquieting urban setting, Hodges enmeshes his tortured protagonists in an asphalt jungle that’s an interminable breeding ground of degradation and wickedness. The city is alive with the stench of moral and physical corruption, and Will, Davey, Boad, and Davey’s faithful friend Mickser (Jamie Foreman) are all hopelessly stuck in the muck.
“I just want the truth,” Will intones to a coroner he’s hired to perform a second post-mortem on Davey, but discovering the truth also means succumbing to the long-dormant fury he knows will inexorably lead to murder. Like his 1971 Get Carter, Hodges’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead involves a hired killer returning to his urban hometown to investigate his brother’s death. Yet whereas Michael Caine’s Carter undergoes no transformation throughout his quest, Owen’s Will (like the actor’s character Jack Manfred in Croupier) is not only tortured by his reversion to killing, but is also afforded the opportunity (however transitory and unrealistic) for escape from his fate by Rampling’s Helen, who begs her former lover to “leave the city…it will destroy you!” She’s correct, of course, as Will’s predictable journey back from self-imposed exile—culminating in an allegorical rebirth via a professional shave and wardrobe makeover—can only conclude in one way. Will’s chillingly hollow gaze, never once interrupted by so much as a blink, reflects the fatalistic character’s recognition that he has no choice but to resume the life he fled, and thus his wasted opportunity to revise his destiny colors his single-minded pursuit of Boad with melancholic despair and, in the process, transforms him into a figure of mythic tragedy.
After finally cornering his prey, Will demands to know why his brother was so heinously assaulted, and Boad’s explanation includes nearly the same list of Davey’s characteristics that Will himself eulogistically intones in voiceover (a Hodges trademark) during the repeated, identical scenes that bookend the film: “He was everything that I loathed. The clothes, the walk, the talk, the lies, the way he smoked.” As Hodges’s bleak film solemnly imparts, one’s inherent personality can be simultaneously attractive and repulsive, but never fundamentally altered. “What’s left to say he was here at all? Not much,” Will says about Davey (and, perhaps, himself) while standing near the ocean in this stark mirror image of the film’s opening scene, a lament that exemplifies I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead‘s vision of life as fleeting and futile. Revenge may be attainable, Hodges illustrates in this final act of temporal reshuffling, but no matter what path you choose, everyone ultimately winds up right back where they started.