Cinema of New Zealand: Sleeping Dogs (1977) Review

“Don’t you ever worry about killing the wrong man?”

Roger Donaldson’s breakthrough thriller Sleeping Dogs, is every bit as good today as it was back in 1977 – and is startlingly pertinent still.  Adapted from C.K. Stead’s 1972 novel Smith’s Dream, Sleeping Dogs is the film most often credited with beginning the New Wave cinema movement of the 70’s and 80s in New Zealand. It followed on in some ways from the the Hollywood New Wave movement of the late 60’s; where young directors were making their unique voices heard and reinvigorating the film landscape, away from the repetitive studio productions of the Golden Age of Hollywood. New Zealand was different though as, before the 70’s New Wave hit, the country didn’t have much of a film landscape to speak of. In fact the majority of films made in this period were documentaries funded by the government. Sleeping Dog’s changed all of that. It brought New Zealand cinema up to speed with the likes of Australia and Britain and showed that it too could make daring and dangerous films. Like the New Wave Hollywood cinema of Arthur Penn and Dennis Hopper, Sleeping Dogs is shockingly bleak and counter-cultural. 

Despite being one of the first notable films out of New Zealand, Sleeping Dogs captures wonderfully the themes and archetypes that can still be found in New Zealand cinema right up to today. Sam Neill’s Smith is the quintessential ‘man alone’; deciding to abandon life in normal society to instead live off the grid on his very own island. This is intentionally played with, as Smith is ripped out of this comfortable archetype and forced into to being a representative for some futuristic resistance. The film frequently show a dichotomy between light and dark elements, something often seen in the films of New Zealand. Here, as in the case of other NZ films like Hunt For The Wilderpeople, The Piano, and Tracker, ‘the bush’ is the where the film finds it’s darkest elements. Smith sees the blown up bodies of the resistance in the bush and then spends numerous days trapped within it, with an injured Bullen in tow (a fantastic Ian Mune, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Despite this however, its the untamed nature of Smith’s island where he seems the happiest. The visual’s reflect this too, with much warmer colours and shots of New Zealand that could be straight from the tourist board. The cinematography throughout the film is wonderful (the film was shot by the great Michael Seresin). I especially like the cold dark scenes of Smith in the prison cell, or the shots in the dark, all-encompassing bush. Both the Blu Ray and the version of the film on Arrow-Player look absolutely stunning, which elevates the film above it’s low budget trappings.

One criticism of the film is that it’s uneven (something noted by star Sam Neill in his 1995 documentary NZ film documentary Cinema of Unease) and this is occasionally true in both tone and plotting. A Prime minister played by Bernard Kearns pops up early in the film, speaking scarily familiar fascist rhetoric through the television screen, but disappears for ever about half way through. The same could be said of the America soldiers Smith runs into, led by Warren Oates’ Colonel Willoughby. Oates is fantastic in his small role but the American’s exit the film as fast as they entered, with the film never giving us an answer to whether they were the bad guys that the resistance claimed them to be. Weirdly though, this unevenness all works in the film’s favour. The film meanders through different New Zealand locations from cramped cityscapes to the nightmarish bush but just like Smith at the centre of the story, it never lingers for too long or ever fully commits to an ideology. The audience aren’t given any easy answers the questions it presents and the oh so bleak ending leaves you to make up your own mind about Smith’s journey. The film might be too disorganised for some viewers but I loved the random, zigzaging narrative; it gives us a closer idea of the deepening craziness Smith is going through. 

At the centre of the film is the great Sam Neill as the reluctant face of the resistance, Smith. It’s a fantastic performance and one of Neill’s absolute best (which is saying a lot because I’ve never seen the man turn in anything less than a brilliant performance). Despite it being one of Neill’s first big acting gigs, he commands the screen throughout with a confident performance. The character is a down on his luck sad sack but Neill makes you care about Smith, even when he’s hard to sympathise with. The film see’s Smith being pulled to the forefront of a resistance movement, as New Zealand descends into a fascist police state. The film was probably more relevant for the residents of New Zealand watching in the 70’s (the scenes of the police beating protesters mirrored similar protests of the time) than it is for modern day Kiwi’s. But the idea of a country slowly sliding into being a fascist autocracy, with a controversial figurehead, where protesters are regularly beaten down by police, is perhaps more meaningful these days to a British or American audience. That’s just my opinion, as a Brit. But I feel Donaldson really tapped into the unfortunately timeless idea of what a country looks like when it swings too far to the right. But don’t look to Sleeping Dogs as a blueprint for the revolution; the resistance in the film aren’t to be idealised either. The stories they tell Smith aren’t always the whole truth and they don’t seem to value Smith’s life all that much. The fact that the resistance higher up, Bullen, is also the man who Smith’s wife left him for, means the struggle isn’t exactly black and white for poor Smith.

Sleeping Dogs is a landmark film for the cinema of New Zealand. It kick-started the countries very own new wave cinema movement and it heralded the arrival of two new voices with director Roger Donaldson and star Sam Neill, who would both go on to do big things in both New Zealand and international cinema. But away from all that, it’s also just a really good thriller. The pacing is occasionally uneven but the film speeds along for the most part, and is certainly never boring. The beautiful cinematography and explosive action sequences disguises the film’s low-budget roots while Donaldson’s passionate direction shines throughout. Sam Neill anchors the film with his fantastic central performance but the performances are great throughout (Ian Mune and Warren Oates are just two highlights). Even if you’re not particularly interested in the importance of the film within the context of New Zealand cinema, I’d still recommend it to anyone who’s after a fantastic and well made thriller with an Antipodean edge.

Join me next time in my ‘Cinema of New Zealand’ feature for my review of Roger Donaldson’s Smash Palace.

Reviewed by Tom

Sleeping Dogs is available now on Arrow film’s new streaming service, Arrow-Player and on Blu-Ray from ArrowFilms.com.

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