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Saturday, May 10, 2008 

"The dead are dead."

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is an odd little movie; topped off with a punishingly intense performance from Clive Owen, who spends half the movie not speaking when any other character would, his stillness leaves it oddly centreless. The other major actors - McDowell, Rhys Meyers, Rampling - barely appear at all, it feels like, and aside from a queasily unformed obsession with male rape the whole thing nearly slides right past. Queasy because the movie at best shows the hypocrisy and homophobia that tend to go along with perceptions of male rape blankly in order to elicit our unease, and at worst maybe wants us to share those feelings unreflectingly; I tend to think matters are closer to the former, if only for the devastating little scene where one of Owen's old cronies tells Rampling that she couldn't possibly imagine what getting raped might have been like for Rhys Meyers. She doesn't say anything in response but her face speaks volumes.

Once Will Graham, Owen's character, gets back to London and finds out about his brother, the movie actually begins, and when it does it boasts an oddly precise sense of place, a late night London where literally the only people on the street are criminals; the almost too-dark atmosphere and the camera's focus on cars tracking pedestrians, windows as the blinds are pulled closed and people from a distance make the film feel hemmed in. There's virtually no violence in the film, many of the characters' actions stem from unsaid motives (although thankfully little happens that is illogical), and most of the confrontations the film sets you up to expect are ducked entirely. Thankfully for a modern revenge movie, the issue of whether revenge is worse for the revenger than those he kills is left aside; Graham was a monster long before the film began.

Absent Owen, this might add up to a trifle; but his inexorability and the genuine wildness in his eyes (the kind everyone else makes reference to, which normally in a movie would make it one of those Informed Attributes like being a great singer which we never really believe in; Owen makes us believe) sells Will Graham as less human being than revenge tragedy avatar. All he needs to do is widen his eyes a little when he's asked "what does it matter? He's dead" and you expect blood. Near the end of the movie he shaves off his beard and swaps his living rough clothes for a suit, and his impact is the less for it; but for an actor whose strength is the eventual explosion, it's terrifically tense to see him end the film more compressed than before. If the film has a message, it can be expressed in that immortal Kenny Rogers song: Nobody in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead knows when to hold fast or when to walk away, but some of them might be learning. It helps that the end of the movie has a bit of the quality of Portishead's "Silence."

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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