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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Best Served Cold: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead 

There are a lot of similarities between Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. Both are, at least on the surface, about men who have attempted — unsuccessfully — to purge wicked thoughts and deeds from themselves. The men, both named Will, have exiled themselves into extreme humility. A petty, senseless crime brings them back. What was a delicate holding pattern — a stalemate of their true nature — now crumbles under the weight of inevitability. Men die, and any victory is plainly Pyrrhic. They’re classic themes explored by old masters.

Indeed, Eastwood and Hodges both know something about the revenge story. Hodges launched his feature film career with Get Carter, a grim and bleak exploration of the British underworld starring Michael Caine in one of his finest performances. Eastwood, well — he hardly needs introducing. Though he is a gifted director with a broad resumé, it’s safe to say he’s made a career in both directing and acting out of exploring the many themes of violence and vengeance. Hodges and Carter may well be responsible for the spate of British gangster films to follow, up to and including the career of Guy Ritchie.

But there’s nothing particularly glamorous about Carter, and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is even less glitzy. One could accurately call it anti-sexy. The only sex is a rape, and the only violence is a single gunshot. The rest is people: various threads of lives lived separately spun into decaying orbit around each other by one brutal act.

There’s a young man named Davey. He’s a small-time coke dealer to the rich and bored. He affects casual cool and deliberately tousled hair, even though his flat sports little more than a phone, a bathtub, and an unadorned mattress. He sleeps with his clients and lifts cash and trinkets from anyone who’s not looking. Davey, in short, lives a superfluous life. He apparently always has; throughout the film, anyone who speaks of him utters some variation on the line “he dabbles; you know how Davey is.”

But someone is paying attention. An older man, married, with children. He runs a successful upscale car dealership. And when he’s not attending to his personal or business life, he and some hired muscle troll the streets looking for superficial little shits. Little shits like Davey. And his men grab them off the streets. And he rapes them. Why? To teach them how small they are. How little they matter. How flimsy their affected cool is. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the old man’s spite.

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