Davey Graham is dead. He was a young man of no great importance, a charmer of women and a small time drug dealer. But he has a brother, Will, a notorious gangster who dropped out of sight and has not been seen for 3 years. Now he is forced to make a reluctant return to the violent streets of south London to find the answer to a simple question, who was responsible for Davey’s death?
An overcast day and a man on a beach hits golf balls into the sea, unaware that he is being observed by a lone suited figure. So begins Mike Hodges’ elusive movie I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead which takes the same premise as his landmark debut, Get Carter. But those expecting a similarly violent thriller will be disappointed for this isn’t a straightforward retread. Will is no Carter and thanks to a restrained and nuanced performance by Clive Owen we come to realise that this isn't a simple tale of revenge. Hodges deliberately drip-feeds the audience information in an intentionally measured movie that embraces film noir techniques with its shadowy cinematography and, assisted by a low-key score, presents a distinct view of the twilight world of south London gangland.
The south London of the film is a place in which gang bosses like Frank Turner (a menacing Ken Stott) silently patrol their domain from the calm comfort of their chauffeur driven cars, overseeing their kingdoms. Those further down the food chain engage in macho posturing and violent outbursts. It is this testosterone fuelled culture that Hodges critiques with characters that are open with their emotions – greeting each other with warm embraces, openly crying at the tragedy of Davey’s death – but at the same time baulk at anything that threatens or makes them question their manliness such as male rape, a plot point that is crucial to the film. Will’s reason for leaving also contravenes this macho world and his return from self-imposed exile is not one he relishes, stopping his van to throw up when nearing the city. His journey to the truth brings him into contact with old friends such as traditional London gangster figure Mickser (Jamie Foreman), a strained reunion with former flame Helen (Charlotte Rampling) and finally a contemptuous Boad, played with an air of casual, vain superiority by Malcolm McDowell. In its climactic moments Hodges’ film again plays with the conventions of the genre and reinforces the director’s obsession with analysing male identity.
A meditation on masculinity I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a film that defies expectations and refuses to give easy answers. In the character of Will Graham Hodges and screenwriter Trevor Preston have created a complex individual that doesn’t neatly fit the traditional gangster mould, an observation that applies to the film as a whole. Those looking for something a bit more enigmatic than the conventional revenge film will be rewarded with a movie full of images and themes that linger long in the memory.
British director, from television, with an interesting take on crime movies. His first film was the gritty, gangster cult Get Carter, but the offbeat follow-up Pulp was not as successful. The Terminal Man was a Hollywood science fiction thriller, and Flash Gordon a gloriously over-the-top comic book epic which showed Hodges' good humour to its best effect.