Gangster movie misses target

By Tracy Douglas

Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead has a promising storyline, but the film fails to deliver on that promise.

Starring Clive Owen as Will Graham, the movie starts with Will in a field set in the present. Then, the film reverts to an extended flashback to tell the main story.

Will used to be a gangster, but he left to be a lumberjack in a woods somewhere in England’s countryside.

The film juxtaposes his actions in the woods with those of his brother, Davey, in the city.

Davey, played by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, is a drug dealer and a ladies’ man. He gets himself into a bad situation with the mob boss (or, who seems like a mob boss), Boad (Malcolm McDowell), and commits suicide after being raped.

Will comes back from his seclusion in the woods to bury his brother and figure out why he killed himself. Because he came back, the mob threatens him to not interfere in their doings. His character is given added mystique when others talk about him and his previous evil deeds.

One man describes him as “a fierce man who’ll go the distance.” There is talk about him killing men before the action of the film.

He proceeds to investigate his brother’s death and take actions against those he believes caused the suicide.

This sounds like a promising storyline straight out of other gangster movies. The supposedly reformed gangster comes back to exact revenge on the really bad guys who hurt his loved ones. This is seen time and time again, such as in The Godfather Part 1 when Michael returns from Sicily to avenge his brother’s killing.

The trailer for I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead makes it appear to be that kind of movie, a revenge movie. The trailer bills the film as a crime thriller like those of the noir cinema. However, the film gets too tangled up in the emotion of Will’s dealing with the death of his brother.

It is as if the film does not know what it wants to be – revenge gangster film or intellectually and emotionally deep film about suicide.

Another problem with the film is that it does not fully explain everything. It is not clear whether Boad is in the mob or not.

The viewer infers that he might be the mob boss because he is shown with others in what appears to be the mob. However, they might not be the mob. The film misses the chance to explain this and add to the story.

Given those problems, there are a few intriguing things in this film.

The title in itself sounds like a reference to the hard-boiled detective films and noir crime films of the 1940s. A tough gangster might say that to his friends.

Will tells Boad, “I wanna kill you so badly I can taste it.”

There are many opportunities for this film to cite the crime thrillers that came before it. However, it does not. If it had, the film’s value would have increased with the added citations.

It is also interesting that gangster films make the viewer root for the anti-hero. All clues tell the viewer that the gangster is an immoral character who should not be liked. However, the viewer ends up wishing that the gangster can get his revenge without consequences.

This is similar to works of literature, such as Paradise Lost, that start by making the devil or vices seem cool. The gangster in film is the modern devil who makes vices and murder appeal to the viewer even when it should not.

Gangster films are normally full of potential because they are just fun with their action. However, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead fails to make good on that expectation in the end.