One of the negatives in being a latecomer to films that end up getting talked about or written about in any meaningful way is, the weeks or months of reviews and critical analysis and general consensus have a way, no matter how rigorously their influence is avoided, of seeping into and affecting a viewer’s preconceptions. I came to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind quite late, long after all the rapturous reviews had piled up, and found it far less emotionally effective than expected, and perhaps just a shade too clever as well. And seen a slight distance from the pre-election hubbub over its “politics,” Team America: World Police looked to these eyes like a gigantic missed opportunity, an ostensible satire that too eagerly replaced a coherent point of view with frustrating juvenilia at almost every turn, potential pitfalls the South Park movie craftily avoided (more, but not much more, on Team America in my next post).
I’m not sure what the general level of expectation was in the critical community, or in the Empire magazine British fan-boy base, when Mike Hodges’ latest crime noir I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead was released (in America this past summer, and in England months earlier). But after the unexpected American art-house success of Hodges’ Croupier (which flopped in Britain initially, until it was re-released there in the wake of its stateside reception), Paramount Classics was certainly less than shy in reminding potential ticket-buyers of the connection between the earlier film and Hodges’ most recent work, and even more aptly the fact that he directed Michael Caine in the seminally nasty Get Carter way back in 1970. They also found plenty of enthusiastic blurbs with which to adorn the DVD box—Ebert and Roeper seem duly impressed.
Personally, however, the expectation level was quite high—I had quite liked Croupier, but was more interested to see what Hodges would do in 2003 with a film that was more directly related thematically to the 1970 film. Unfortunately, the film played in Los Angeles only briefly, and as I have alluded in previous posts, it is much more difficult for me to get out to the theater to see everything I’m interested in these days-- if a film doesn’t get much more than a couple of weeks in movie houses, or if it ends up limited to a brief west-side run, the likelihood I’ll get a chance to see it, however high my level of anticipation, is quite slim. So, like many others will who may or may not know of the new film’s lineage, I finally caught up with the picture on DVD, the format that has proven to be a boon for filmgoers like me who find themselves perpetually behind the cinematic curve, release schedule-wise.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead turns out to feel less “thematically related” to Get Carter than simply a somewhat narcotized remake of it. The new film ups the ante on a particular aspect of personalized violence, but, no matter how much Hodges and his company of actors (including Owen, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Charlotte Rampling and Malcolm McDowell) take advantage of the even more permissive standards of film content that have resulted from the passage of 34 years, Get Carter remains the nastier film (by far) and the more interesting one (by far) as well. Rhys-Davies, a small-time drug dealer, is raped at the hands of McDowell on behalf of a shadowy crime boss as payback for some unknown transgression, and the humiliation of the assault proves too much for the young thug, who promptly stumbles home, soaks in a bathtub for 12 hours, then slashes his own throat and bleeds to death. News of his brother’s death brings Owen, a ex-thug of some reputation who has spent the past year as a logger living out of a beat-up van, out of his woodsy exile. Owen returns, with considerable hesitance, to the mean streets of London to investigate his brother’s death and, of course, avenge him. Upon arrival, he connects up with entrepreneurial ex-girlfriend Rampling, who may or may not know something about what’s happened, and discovers both the fact of the suicide (as opposed to a more direct murder) and evidence of the rape, which, somewhat incredibly, went unnoticed during the initial coroner’s inquest.
The rape is the catalyst of the movie’s important events, of course, and when Owen expresses disbelief to a second coroner that his brother would have engaged in homosexual activity, the coroner informs him that there was ejaculate found in his underwear and that in cases of rape even a heterosexual man may involuntarily become erect and have an orgasm mid-assault. The clinical delivery of the information, and Owen’s rather passive resistance to, and then acceptance of it, hints that the movie might eventually, in its own unhurried time, attempt an investigation of the kind of masculine ideology that posits male-on-male rape as the most devastating violation imaginable. But despite its clunky writing (the coroner’s information is delivered to the audience in the most obviously expository way and left cold on the slab) the scene ends up the high-water mark of a movie that, faced with the difficult task of challenging the assumptions of a class of underworld gangster (and, by extension, all men who hold similar fears of violation), takes the road of least returns; Hodges remains frustratingly on the surface, accepting those fears at face value, staying comfortable with the notion that homosexual rape might even be worse than murder and would certainly rate a similar sense of outrage and need for vengeance.
The movie’s disinterest in anything but dressing up and muddying the chronology of the most perfunctory elements of its Carter-ish revenge plot ultimately reinforces this perception; it’s almost as if the pall of depression experienced by Rhys-Meyers, and then Owen, settles over the entire film, reflected (barely) in the dazzlingly dark streets and funereal pace at which the film’s simultaneously elemental and obliquely dramatized plot strands unfold. Hodges misses a chance to dig deep into a risky and challenging subject. I was left feeling as somnolent as Owen's lead character, fuzzy and disoriented as the movie sputtered to a halt at the very point it started. The writer-director would have been well advised to transplant some of the caustic zest of the Warren Zevon song from which he filches his film's title, but alas, the movie is only sleepy.