Sleeping Dogs – A razor-edge thriller about one man’s quest to reclaim his past

Memories are fickle things. However vital they are, they can also vanish in an instant, erasing our history. Memories are the maps to our past, the guides to ourselves and how we live our lives. Without them, the road ahead becomes blurry and uncertain, impossible to navigate. How do you find your way back, without this important map to follow?

This is the quandary ex-homicide detective Roy Freeman (Russell Crowe) is challenged with in Sleeping Dogs, examining the role of memory in the midst of a murder investigation.

A thriller in the vein of classics like Memento and Shutter Island, Sleeping Dogs is based on the novel The Book of Mirrors by Romanian writer E.O. Chirovici, which piqued the interest of director Adam Cooper due to its potential to examine the fragility and subjectivity of memory. The first two sections of the book focus on a manuscript submitted by an unpublished writer that describes the murder of a college professor, and a freelance reporter attempting to investigate the same crime. Haunted by potential repercussions, both characters abandon their respective projects, adhering to the old adage of ‘letting sleeping dogs lie’.

An experienced screenwriter on a wide variety of action, comedy, and science fiction projects, Cooper is makes his directorial debut with Sleeping Dogs. Blending thoughtful drama with white-knuckle thriller elements, the project offered an exciting combination for the first time director, able to bring together his various experiences. “I think I was drawn to it being this sort of intense character drama, but at the same time, it’s a crime thriller where you’re sort of unpacking this secret history for the audience,” Cooper says.

“That was very exciting for me as a first time filmmaker, to get to make something that’s both a character piece, but something that has a really propulsive story engine behind it at the same time.”

Following revolutionary Alzheimer’s treatment, detective Freeman is tangled in a decades-old case – the brutal murder of a college professor after being faced with a profession of innocence from a death row inmate. Grasping for traces of his past and searching for the truth, Freeman reexamines the case,
enlisting former associate Jimmy Ramus (Tommy Flanagan) to help retrace the decades. However, their investigation is anything but straightforward, uncovering a web of leads, entangling the detectives with the elusive Laura (Karen Gillan) , and setting them on a tumultuous path. Gradually, Freeman and Ramus are faced with increasing uncertainty, contradictions and secrets that challenge their perceptions of the world around them, that go well beyond memory loss. Faced with an unexpected, confronting reality, Freeman’s world is changed in an instant.

When reading The Book of Mirrors, Cooper was so drawn to the narrative that he crafted the film around the character in the final third of the novel – Roy Freeman, a reclusive detective with Alzheimer’s. “I was really drawn to this idea that memory is very much just a point of view,” Cooper says. “And there’s lots of different truths on events that transpired in anybody’s past, and everybody remembers those things differently. And so when the book came to me, I was really drawn to this one character that exists really in the back third of it … and the idea of sort of taking this journey of this man, this cop who’s really kind of living in a kind of existential crisis and sort of unpacking that for viewers.”

“I’m really interested in the role that memory and the past plays in informing who we are as human beings, how the choices that we make irrevocably influence the way that we live our lives,” he says. “I think it forces you for me at least as an almost 52 year old man, to sort of look back on choices I’ve made and things that I’ve done. And the idea of what would happen if you could sort of forget all the things that you wish never happened in your life. What kind of life would you then live?”

“What will the fans think? If they were apprehensive … Gosh, I (wouldn’t) want to do this, what would you say to that?”

However, Cooper overcame his initial reservations, even making changes to the ending. “I think that you’re in for a real ride,” he says. “It’s a really propulsive film with a big surprising ending that I think is really going to shock a lot of people.”

Director Adam Cooper. Photo courtesy of The Avenue.

As a storyteller, I am drawn to characters in crisis. The nature of that crisis can take on many forms– identity, mortality, faith – but at the centre, there’s always someone who is struggling to make sense of their life. Someone who goes on a journey from a lost or fragmented state, to one where they can begin to restore themselves. This is very much the story of our protagonist, Roy Freeman. His crisis is an existential one, as he’s struggling with the most existential question of them all – WHO AM I? His memory loss has robbed him of his quality of life. The foundation of who he thinks he is on any given day, is built on sand – unstable and ever- shifting. It’s like part of his soul has been taken from him or wandered off.

Roy’s quest to reclaim his past is the emotional core of Sleeping Dogs, but that quest will be fraught with peril – as it’s only through an investigation into a forgotten murder case that our protagonist can achieve what he seeks. The irony of this, is that in achieving his goal, he wishes he hadn’t. He wishes that he had just let sleeping dogs lie.

Cinematically, I aspired to make a movie that stands among the greats in this genre Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, Scorsese’s Shutter Island – and am excited to take viewers on a journey into Roy’s forgotten past. To take them on an investigative thrill ride ripe with twists, turns and surprises, but to also make them feel everything Roy is feeling.

What thematically excites me about this story is that it deals with the role memory and our awareness of our past plays in shaping who we are, how we look at the world, and the way in which we behave. It is a universal notion, that what has happened to us, what we have done, or what has been done to us, irrevocably influences who we are. But what if we could forget all that? What if all of the trauma of our past could be washed away? Forgotten. Who would we be?

Is ignorance in fact bliss? Or in forgetting all that is bad, is there now no point of reference or what it really means to be moral and good? Existential questions for sure, and ones that our protagonist will confront on his journey to eventual redemption … or reckoning.

This film was a labor of love, between our actors and crew in Melbourne, Australia. Thank you for being such willing collaborators on my directorial debut. When you give everybody permission to bring their ideas to the table, you end up with something enthralling.