Sunday, July 22, 2007

British neo-noir Part 3: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003)

By Andrew Spicer - a modified excerpt from the book European Film Noir

HodgesI’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003) returns to the themes of Get Carter, but is informed by the deeper existentialism of Croupier. Its title evokes the later hard-boiled writers - Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, or Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man - but unlike the indeterminate London of Croupier, I’ll Sleep resembles Get Carter in its precise delineation of place, what Hodges described as the ‘Dickensian’ quality of squalor and decay in South London, particularly in and around Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham. But it also evokes a mythical, nocturnal London cloaked in darkness, where the flash cars of criminals, lit by the glare of the streetlights, constantly circulate like sharks waiting for their prey. But underpinning I’ll Sleep’s noir elements was the sense of nemesis and inevitability that characterize Greek tragedy.

I’ll Sleep is told entirely in flashback, beginning with a surreal image of a man driving golf balls into the sea on a deserted beach, observed by Will Graham (Clive Owen) who intones: ‘Most thoughts are memories. And memories deceive.’ A feared hard man, Will has been living an isolated, solitary life in rural Wales following an unspecified ‘breakdown’, but returns to his old ‘manor’ after three years away in order to investigate the death of his younger brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Davey, abandoned by Will, had taken to making ‘soft money’ through selling drugs. What Will’s painstaking investigations uncover is not a gangland killing, but something much more horrific: after ejaculating when he was raped, Davey had returned home to slit his own throat in shame and guilt. As Hodges commented, the rape is, ‘the primary violation to the male body, the ultimate challenge to the macho braggadocios of the criminal world.’ Will, another indestructible revenger, finds the rapist Boad (Malcolm McDowell), only to learn that his motives were envy and petty spite. Thus despite his dramatic transformation from disheveled ‘pikey’ to gleaming assassin in pin-sharp suit - the Samurai ritual of cleansing and smartening - Will gets no satisfaction from his revenge, just an inconsolable ‘grief for a life wasted’, like his own. Promising to leave with his ex-girlfriend Helen (Charlotte Rampling), Will, in a typical act of selfishness, drives off on his own back to his self-imposed exile. Abandoned by Will for a second time, Helen’s is another life wasted, taken prisoner in her own home by the Belfast hit man whom master criminal Frank Turner (Ken Stott) has paid to kill Will, a potential rival, when he returns to her house.

Will, unlike Jack Carter, survives, but there is no redemption, as the film circles back to its opening scene. As both Hodges and screenwriter Trevor Preston argue, I’ll Sleep is a film about futility, a study in ‘lost lives, wasted lives’, and about a man who tries to escape from his past, the violence and the hate within him, and create a new existence, but cannot. It is a grim, bleak film, the characters occupying some morbid dream from which they cannot awaken, but also profound, the culmination of Hodges’ long encounter with film noir and his efforts to diagnose the sickness of the macho hard man, his world and all that he stands for. Its existentialism is highly characteristic of the current phase of neo-noir as is its delineation of a deep crisis in masculine identity: the longing for an ordinary life by men damaged and destroyed by brutality and violence.

Hodges’ three films, with their pared down dialogue, evocative compositions and fluid camerawork, are the high point of British neo-noir, but many of the others analyzed in this chapter are accomplished, challenging films that stand comparison with their American counterparts, but which are also resonantly British. Encouragingly, there is no sign that the current energies of British neo-noir are diminishing. It continues to provide both established and novice film-makers a style and a sensibility that can engage critically with social issues as well as exploring the recesses of masculine identity. For all its heterogeneity, British neo-noir deserves to be better known and even celebrated as an important contribution to European cinema, contemporary British culture and the evolution of film noir.

1 comment:

  1. I just finished making a neo noir called Kill, My Lovely. It’s about a detective that falls in love with a murder suspect. I was influenced by other noirs such as Insomnia, Match Point and Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve been submitting to festivals and hoping to hear back soon. Check out my website which has a trailer for it.


Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley