A gangster drama emphasizes character, at the expense of tension.
Rated R for language, a rape scene, violent images and brief drug use; 103 minutes.
Opening today at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.
Director Mike Hodges made one of the classic British gangster thrillers, Get Carter, and had a recent comeback with a tough underworld character study, Croupier.
His latest, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, aims to be a character study running under the colors of a gangster thriller - and doesn't succeed well at either end.
At heart, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is a revenge story. The revenge is sought by Will Graham (played by Croupier star Clive Owen), a former gang boss who has spent the last three years off the grid and living in the woods. He wants to know why his little brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) committed suicide, and take revenge on the person responsible.
This might have made for a taut thriller, except that we know exactly what happened to Davey before he died: After a night of low-level drug dealing, he was grabbed by goons and raped by their boss (Malcolm MacDowell).
Hodges and writer Trevor Preston begin by showing us Davey's last hours, rather than revealing it in flashback as Will learns the details. This mutes any sense of urgency, and practically mocks the words of Davey's old pal Mickser (Jamie Foreman) when he says to Will, It's a mystery, i'dn't it? No, it's not.
Undoubtedly Hodges and Preston wanted viewers not to obsess on the details of Davey's death, and instead focus on what Davey's death is doing to Will. We get clues about Will's past, that he's a Tony Soprano-like figure who chucked it all and became a recluse. We see that mostly in the ways people react to his return - whether it's a rival crime boss (Ken Stott, who clashed with Owen in King Arthur), fearful that Will wants his old territory back, or his ex-lover Helen (Charlotte Rampling) who worries for Will's life if he stays in the city. It's a great role, and Owen plays it with a seductively brooding menace.
Alas, Hodges' deliberate pacing sacrifices the how of the story to the why, when revealing both simultaneously could have made for a ratcheting thriller. As it stands, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead too often sleepwalks to its inevitable finish.