In the early scenes of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Clive Owen is living as a bearded, bedraggled lumberjack in some woodsy nowhere that looks like the last place on earth he belongs. One night, he watches some local toughs beat and humiliate a companion, then leave him alone in the woods. Owen takes a long, hard pausethe film has a lot of thosebefore helping the stranger. It's as if he's afraid to upset the natural balance of transgression and revenge that, in his experience at least, makes the world run.
That's not the experience of his brother Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, or at least not yet. Rhys-Meyers struts through London like it's a private playground, emboldened by his career as a small-time drug dealer to (and occasional bedmate of) rich, beautiful young people who would scoff at the condition of his run-down Brixton flat. He looks for no trouble and finds none, until, in what must qualify as the most terrifying sequence since the end of The Ring, he's inexplicably nabbed and raped by Malcolm McDowell with a pitiless ferocity that seems held over from McDowell's turn as Caligula. This is the world Owen left behind, but before long, Rhys-Meyers comes to a decision that brings him back.
The director of the surprise 1998 hit Croupier (which also starred Owen), Mike Hodges gave British film the ur-text for its cinema of revenge with 1971's Get Carter. A stylish, relentlessly pessimistic work, the film found Michael Caine returning to his hometown looking for vengeance, but mostly finding death and disappointment. Similar in plot and tone, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead at times plays like a grim corrective to whatever incidental pleasure Get Carter offered. At times, this makes the film easier to appreciate than it is to watch: The story is perfectly clear, but the film's style takes its cues from the characters' oblique emotions in a way designed to freeze viewers out.
It's a dirty business Owen enters into, and Hodges doesn't want viewers to forget it; in this respect, the film's a complete success. Owen's London no longer swings. The jazz clubs are all shuttered, and the mere fact that his old friends are ready for action means they're not really his friends anymore. He knows what he has to do, and the moment he forgets the loss coming his way when the score is evened, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is there to brutally remind him.