Will Graham* (Clive Owen) is a former London gangster who has long since left the big city and the game. But a series of seemingly unconnected events – being sacked from his forestry job, a nighttime assault in the woods, and (unbeknown to Will) his brother dying suddenly, violently – conspires to draw him back.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead sees director Mike Hodges team up with Owen again after the critical success of 1998’s Croupier, and also revisits the core plot strand from Hodges’ earlier gangster classic Get Carter – a brother’s suspicious death brings a man of violence back to his home town.
It’s refreshingly impressionistic in comparison, though. There are no internal monologues, no expositional dialogue explaining exactly why Will left London, why he broke up with Helen (Charlotte Rampling), or why Boad (Malcolm McDowell) doesn’t like Will’s brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), and no hip soundtrack, just diegetic sound and atmospheric score.
Some of the tropes could be seen as a little clichéd – man seeks revenge for brother’s death – but seeing as they are built on human impulses as old as humanity, and are never made too intricate, this works well. Whilst the viewer knows ahead of Will what has happened, it is not so complicated an affair for Will not to follow the blood trail. And there is no moral at the end of the story. Well, there’s not really any ending to it, either. Just an arbitrary full stop hanging in time over a series of interconnected events and overlapping strands.
This HonkWatch sees Will throwing up once back within the city limits. He is a scruffy nomad at this point, not yet again preened and strutting like his former self, not yet purged of the simpler life he retreated into, not yet polluted with the filth of the city he hates. It is one stage of several throughout the film of him preparing to wreak lex talionis, a slow, extended tooling up sequence.