To say that the new Mike Hodges film I'll Sleep When I'm Dead confounds expectations doesn't even really begin to describe what this beguiling curiosity does, which shouldn't really be surprise, as Hodges is the director who's given us everything from 1998's Croupier to the Max von Sydow campfest Flash Gordon. Shot mostly in the seedier parts of Brixton (non-swinging London), I'll Sleep is just as ill-concerned with looking like a flash gangster flick - which, in some strange sense, it is - than it is with marrying its two wildly divergent plot strands.
In the first, seemingly primary story, we follow Davey Graham (JONATHAN RHYS-MEYERS) on his none-too-taxing nightly rounds: a little coke-delivery to a fancy party, then a one-nighter with a blonde model (whom he robs), and then to home. Only he's being followed by some tuxedo-wearing rent-a-thugs and a malevolent Malcolm McDowell, who assault him in a shockingly horrific manner - it's quick and brutal, a Hodges specialty, and completely out of nowhere, like a random visit from the Devil. This leaves Davey emotionally shattered and he commits suicide not longer after.
The secondary story line has Will Graham (Clive Owen, shaggy and sullen), older brother to Davey, who left a life of crime in the city three years before and has been living out of a camper doing odd jobs ever since. A passing glimpse of Davey (who is actually already dead at that point) leads Will to head home. Finding things aren't as he'd like them, Will sets about trying to figure out who had a beef with Davey. Meanwhile, his old mob wants him back into the crime biz, and the ascendant gangster boss is nervous about the return of an apparently fearsome man.
Normally, this sort of setup would have been taken care of in about five or ten minutes, and barely longer for Will to come back to town and start cracking heads. But I'll Sleep When I'm Dead takes an elliptical route to its story, seeming at times to even be deliberately misleading. There's a strangely significant role played by Charlotte Rampling as a sympathetic woman very close to Will and Davey, whose exact connection to them is never made clear, a fair amount of time is given to Will's encounter with a man dumped for dead near his camper, something which becomes a narrative wild goose chase in the end. Frustrating? Absolutely. The studio has been selling the film as a modern noir (which in some sense it is, what with the gangsters prowling about, rainy streets and general air of menace), a successor in a sense to Croupier. But whereas that film was a compact knot of story, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is a more haunting thing entirely, a ghostly morality tale which only really gets cracking in the last ten minutes - but what a last ten minutes it is, with Owen's dead-to-the-world mask finally cracking and revealing the dark pit within.
By tossing the normally lithe and urbane Owen out in the woods, covered in scruffy facial hair and shapeless, Paul Bunyan-like outfit, Hodges has made a pretty daring choice - it's like putting Cary Grant in overalls. And this is a daring work altogether, more ghost story than revenge tale, and definitely more interested in sadness and the evil that men do than anything of a pulpier nature. There's a whiff of jazz throughout the film, and not just in the soundtrack's occasionally mournful horn solos or the John Coltrane posters owned by Davey (a Terrence Blanchard fan) - which are basically just noir conventions tossed in by Hodges for a little kick like the '30s-style hat Owen affected in Croupier - but also in its unpredictability and a stubborn and strangely noble refusal to divulge secrets.
He's not dead yet.