Russell Crowe is a cop with Alzheimer’s who re-opens an old case in this blunt-edged thriller

Sleeping Dogs

Source: The Avenue

‘Sleeping Dogs’

Dir: Adam Cooper. Australia/US. 2023. 110mins

An ex-cop battling Alzheimer’s, robbed of all his memories, Roy Freeman (Russell Crowe) is a shadow of a man, his life dictated by the reminders — of his name, his age, directions to the bathroom — pasted haphazardly around his apartment. Yet when an old murder case unexpectedly rears its head, Roy find himself heading down a rabbit hole into the past. While debut director Adam Cooper (best known for writing screenplays including Assassin’s Creed, The Transporter: Refuelled and Tower Heist) tries to make the most of this twisting premise, the result is a clunky, overwrought thriller which leans heavily on cliche.

A clunky, overwrought thriller

Its premise may draw unavoidable comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s far superior Memento, but Sleeping Dogs is actually an adaptation of the 2017 crime novel ’The Book Of Mirrors’ by Romanian author Eugen Chirovici, which has been translated into 37 languages. Even though the film makes changes to the story, centring it around the character of Roy, fans of the novel will be a key demographic when the film releases in the US on March 22. Crowe’s presence may tempt others, but it is one of those throwaway thrillers that is more likely to find an audience on streaming.

With Roy having no memory of what has gone before, or even who he is, huge chunks of exposition drop with a thud into the opening sequence, and stick around throughout. ’You have Alzheimer’s’ reads one of the many stickers adorning the walls of the apartment where he lives by himself. Roy has painful flashbacks to a doctor’s office, where it is explained to him (and us) that he is undergoing experimental treatment to reopen his brain’s neurological pathways, and that he has to keep his mind active if the procedure is to work. 

Thus, when he finds himself summoned to a meeting with a death row prisoner (the film takes place in the US, but shot in Australia), Roy’s interest is piqued enough to attend. The man, who is a month away from execution, claims to be innocent of the murder of a prominent professor for which he has spent the last decade in prison — despite the fact that Roy and his then-partner Jimmy Remis (Tommy Flanagan) extracted a confession from him. With little else to occupy his mind, Roy decides to dig back into the case.

Despite the potential for narrative intrigue offered by Roy’s condition — he is essentially seeing evidence for the first time — Cooper and co-writer Bill Collage prefer to eschew nuance in favour of indelicate characterisation. The various players, including the downtrodden, grisly Jimmy and the dead professor’s beautiful assistant Laura (Karen Gillan) — called, in one of many excrutiating pieces of dialogue “a rare unicorn” — seem ripped from central casting, and behave exactly as you would expect them to. Even Crowe, as the supposedly open mind at the centre of this story, is not given much to do beyond the obvious: making leaps in logic to follow the narrative; blearily falling off the wagon; grimacing as he has another flashback that fills in a tiny piece of the story.

Neither Jimmy nor Laura is happy that Roy is raking over old coals, and both are clearly keeping secrets that, perhaps, Roy once knew. Nobody here is a reliable narrator; certainly not conveniently-deceased author Richard Finn (Harry Greenwood), whose first draft of a novel about the murder (named ‘The Book Of Mirrors’)  proves a key piece of evidence, even if it may not be factually accurate.

When Roy reads the manuscript — in which Richard details his relationship with both Laura and Professor Wieder (Martin Csokas), who was working on a groundbreaking medication to help people forget past trauma — it leads to one of many extended flashback sequences which not only introduce an increasing number of plot strands, but seed increasingly obvious scraps of evidence that sharp-eyed viewers will piece together long before the final reveal.

That’s not hard, particularly as Cooper takes a heavy hand with anything surrounding memory and perception. An early scene sees Roy struggling with a jigsaw puzzle, there are numerous shots involving mirrored reflections, and Roy keeps uncovering boxes in his home filled with old documents and photographs — one of which has some well-placed smashed glass which he does not investigate until it is dramatically convenient. Most egregious is a blinding halo-shaped lens flare when Roy re-enters the — still deserted — scene of the crime. Such blunt tools, which include the neurotic, 90s string-heavy score, don’t so much leave a trail of clues for the audience, but attempt to bludgeon them into submission. 

Production companies: The Avenue, Highland Film Group, Nickel City Productions

International sales: Highland Film Group

Producers: Bill Collage, Deborah Glover, Arun Kumar, Pouya Shahbazian

Screenwriters: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage

Cinematography: Ben Nott

Production design: Penelope Southgate

Editing: Matt Villa

Music: David Hirschfielder

Main cast: Russell Crowe, Karen Gillan, Martin Csokas, Tommy Flannigan, Harry Greenwood