Roger Donaldson/ New Zealand/ 1977/ 104 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 16 Apr 2018
Kiwi filmmaker Roger Donaldson is regarded as something of a journeyman; a safe pair of hands across many genres. His films include Kevin Costner vehicle No Way Out, Cocktail, Species, and his debut Sleeping Dogs, which helped launched both the career of leading man Sam Neill, and the independent New Zealand film industry which has given us the likes of Peter Jackson, Jane Campion and Taika Waititi.
When Smith (Neill) discovers his wife has been having an affair, he moves out to a small island to get away from the world. His absence coincides with the rise of a fascist government and the formation of a violent resistance. Framed for dissidence, he’s thrown into the middle of the struggle between the government and the rebels, now headed by his wife’s lover.
Sleeping Dogs feels like something of a showreel for Donaldson; an attempt to demonstrate his versatility within the confines of one film. As such, it ends up meandering between styles to no great effect. It starts off as an earthy, meditative drama which makes good use of a young Neill’s stoic handsomeness. However, when things blow up suddenly he’s caught up in the tonal whiplash, and never really finds his feet as a believable action lead. There’s a stiffness and a discomfort he would later use to great effect in Andrzej Żuławski‘s otherworldly Possession, but he’s not yet the great presence he has since come to be.
What Sleeping Dogs demonstrates very well is in the depiction of social unrest. The idea of a Fascist government in cozy New Zealand may sound amusing, but Donaldson anticipated the visual impact that scenes of the miners dispute had in the 80’s. The frantic camera and gritty footage can’t help but bring to mind the likes of Orgreave. These concerns are eternally relevant, particularly in the politically volatile times in which we find ourselves, and Donaldson handles them with documentary authenticity, ensuring that for all the film’s faults, it’s easy to see why it has some resonance forty years on.
In many ways, Donaldson’s debut fails because it reaches too far. No film featuring Warren Oates as a lascivious US army captain is ever going to be without merit, and his arrival onscreen sparks Neill into life for a while, but Sleeping Dogs simply tries to do too much. Should Sleeping Dogs have been left to lie? No, for this is a hugely flawed work yet one can see the kernel of the man who would become hugely assured at every genre to which he turned his hand.