Disliking the brand-new film by Mike Hodges is no easy task. The seventy-something English director has followed an interesting and most unusual career path, from 1971’s stone-cold revenge classic “Get Carter” to the best (and Queeniest) comic strip movie ever, “Flash Gordon.” Many years later, the surprising U.S. success of the indie casino caper “Croupier” put star Clive Owen on the map and sparked something of a Hodges revival.
Now Hodges and Owen have reunited, and the ungainly “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is the result. How ungainly? Well, any film whose plot takes off from an act of anal rape is likely to be…a tough sit. The larger problem is that right off the bat, the story comes at us in oblique, even confusing shards. Owen, playing some sort of former crime kingpin named Will Graham, stands on a windswept coast musing that “Most thoughts are memories…and memories deceive.” Then we’re in London, following a young drug dealer about town named Davey. Walking back to his flat after a night of dealing and carousing, Davey is abducted by Boad (the ever-seething Malcolm McDowell), who performs the aforementioned violation for no apparent reason. Davey manages to stumble home and, wrecked by the shame of it, does himself in.
Next we find Will living in a van in the backwoods, bearded and flannelled. Eventually we learn that Will is in fact Davey’s older brother – but in the interim, the film itself just feels off, refusing to find a groove, to explain how these characters are related, especially why Boad targeted Davey in the first place. There’s something at once admirable and annoying about how much the film holds back – as if Hodges is willing the thing to be anti-entertainment. It’s dark, it’s intelligent – it’s also humorless and a bit pretentious.
Finally, Will makes the fateful decision to return to London and step back into his slick gangster identity. Revenge is a great character motivation, and it motivates the film as well, gives it a spine as Will steadily makes his way to Boad and gets down to business. But by now the film’s steadfast and rather strange refusal to follow any regular rhythms has taken its toll. In a way, one has to admire Hodges’ insistence on playing around with the old “Get Carter” formula. And more power to anyone who loves this film for that reason. “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is tough stuff – for better or worse.