Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 14 February 2005
Source Paramount DVD
Robert Warshow begins his essay “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” with a definitive statement: “The two most successful creations of American movies are the gangster and the Westerner: men with guns.” His decision to interlink the heroes of these genres is a telling one, for both types of men share a common bond in their outsider status. Although Warshow goes on to delineate some of the differences between them, their solitary, melancholy worldview leaves them inextricably tied together. It is from this perspective that Will Graham, the protagonist of Mike Hodges’ film I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, can best be viewed.
Embodied by Clive Owen, an actor who excels at playing strong, silent types, Will does not appear to have encountered modern niceties, like a comb or a shopping mall, in several years. The wildness of his appearance strongly contrasts with that of his younger brother, Davey, a slickly-dressed London drug dealer who seems to be able to coax a woman into bed with a mere nod of his head. As it turns out, Davey’s appeal is not limited to the young ladies he meets at parties; his confidence and social ease has piqued the interest and resentment of Boad, a middle-aged gangster. On the way back home from a party one night, Boad’s gang kidnaps Davey, and the elder man proceeds to rape him brutally. The shock of the incident sends Davey into a swift downward spiral, and he winds up committing suicide shortly thereafter.
The news of his beloved brother’s death tests the resolve of Will, an ex-con who has markedly tried to distance himself from his former world, where he was once known as one of the toughest men around. His return to London and his subsequent investigation of the circumstances surrounding Davey’s suicide cause him to confront a former lover, an embittered crime boss, and the friends who had written him off long ago. Although violence no longer seems to be part of his nature, when he uncovers Boad’s actions, he finds revenge a difficult option to resist.
Although Hodges himself has characterized the film as a noir, the details of Will’s situation (a former “bad guy” struggling to remain on the straight and narrow) call to mind iconic Western characters such as Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in High Noon and Gregory Peck’s Jimmie Ringo in The Gunfighter. If anything, the noir tradition observed here is not that found in the American films of the 1940s, with their feckless heroes and femme fatales, but that in the cool, detached heroes of French crime capers like Rififi, Le Samouraï, and Le Cercle Rouge.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead also stands out for its overt preoccupation with masculine identity. While this is certainly a subtext in both gangster and Western films, few have chosen to tackle it in such a disarmingly head-on manner. By placing a male rape at the center of the film, Hodges and screenwriter Trevor Preston make a discussion of the subject unavoidable as they render the consequences of this action on Will and Davey’s hypermasculine world.
Although most of the violence in the film is relegated off-screen, it is a testament to Hodges’ talents that these unseen outbursts resonate far more than many of their visual counterparts in other movies. In Will Graham, he and Preston have created an anti-hero for the ages.