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Review: I’ll Sleep when I’m Dead (2004)

October 28, 2008

There’s a scene late in “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” that is so small you
might miss it, but it’s the key to the movie’s success. I’m not sure I can
describe it to you without giving away too much of the plot, but here goes.
The scene is between two brothers, Will (Clive Owen) and Mickser (Jamie
Foreman). Will has a piece of information that he needs to tell Mickser, but
Will has to lay it out in a specific way. The scene reveals a piece of
information that we already know and Mickser does not.

I wish I didn’t have to be so vague. Let me start at the beginning. “I’ll
Sleep When I’m Dead” begins by focusing on two seemingly unrelated
characters, Will and Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Will lives alone in a van
while doing anonymous work as a lumberjack. Davey is a high-profile drug
dealer who likes the job because it provides him access to a life he can’t
afford. Will is obviously a mountain-man type; he doesn’t talk much, he has
a large beard, and he doesn’t seem to have much to do besides work and live.

Since the movie simply gives us these two people, and casts them with such
talented actors, it immediately gains interest. We want to know who these
two are. I thought, when the movie began, that it would be more of a
hyperlink film, having the two connected only through coincidence and the
like. I was very wrong.

“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is a full-blooded film noir all the way from the
opening credits to the ending, and it plays as a grand example of the genre.
The dialogue is my favorite part, personally, but there are other things to
praise. The performances are excellent. Clive Owen, playing somewhat against type as Will, finds so much silence and introspection in his character that he’s in danger of implosion. A lesser actor would have made Will boring and brooding, but Owen makes him fascinating, even when his goals are simple.
Will’s a character who knows what he wants and will stop at nothing to get it.

I’m also starting to think that John Rhys-Meyers really has what it takes to
be a serious movie star. He’s good-looking and finds interesting notes in
characters that aren’t necessarily provided by the script. As Davey, he
provides a character that reminded me a little bit of Johnny Depp as the
title character in Donnie Brasco; he knows his trade well enough that simply
watching him do it is interesting. Rhys-Meyers, like Depp, doesn’t mistake
opulence for character. He finds his notes and plays them the best he can
within their range.

But let’s talk about that dialogue. I’m starting to get sick of movies where
the characters talk like they’re being filmed to be colorful. Any indie
comedy will show you this (I exempt “Juno,” since it had a plot to go with
it). “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” blows the lid off of colorful dialogue and
says as much as possible with as few words as possible. Each character
sounds unique. Will, in the scene I referenced at the beginning of the
review, talks very differently from Mickser, even though he doesn’t say
much. I would have been content to just let these people talk in their
unique rhythms and word choices for the 100 minutes of the film.

There’s a scene, for example, in which the villain, Boad (Malcolm McDowell),
is asked what he was doing on a particular night when a crucial plot point
happened. In a movie with less confidence, he would grin and launch into a
grand soliloquy about how evil he was and about how much he loves what he
does. Instead, Boad does something far more chilling. He looks the other
character straight in the eye and says, “That night… I was at home with my
family.” Now that’s saying more with less.

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