In 2013, I’m undertaking the colossal task of seeing and reviewing every single film Sam Neill has acted in or directed, 90 films in total. This post is a part of that review series. 

Sam neill holding a gun in Sleeping Dogs

In 1977, the career for two film artists who would become mainstays in the coming decades took off with with action-drama Sleeping Dogs. The film, which is also the first 35mm film ever to be produced entirely in New Zealand, introduced director Roger Donaldson and actor Sam Neill to the film world at large.

Sleeping Dogs, based on a novel by Karl Stead, takes place in a slightly altered 1970s New Zealand, one where civil unrest in the shadow of a crippling oil crisis is reaching boiling point. At the same time, the relationship between Smith (Neill) and Gloria (Nevan Rowe) has crumbled to the point where he’s moving out and his former best friend, Bullen, is replacing him. Left only with a broke-down car and a drawn goodbye picture from his children, Smith decides to settle on an abandoned island in Maori territory, with only a newly acquired boat and dog.

Meanwhile, tensions boil over in the society he’s bitterly ignoring when the government hires a hitman to kill soldiers and uses the murders as justification to set martial laws in the country. That move provokes a full-on revolt, where New Zealand quickly descends into a police state.

Sam Neill wearing a beard in Sleeping Dogs

Smith gets dragged -literally- into the chaos when he’s arrested on charges of owning an assault weapon and keeping explosives on the island, ones that were left there after the second World War and he never had anything to do with. Facing either a public confession for being a revolutionary and a subsequent secret deportation, or denying the charges and awaiting the firing squad, Smith manages to escape the ruthless special police, only to land in even deeper waters.

First-time director Donaldson crafts an interesting narrative in Sleeping Dogs, one that mixes home-grown social drama with action film sensibilities. The film’s title mirrors its political message, where an intolerant government, in its intention to secure its own position, provokes a civil war by kicking its metaphorical dog, the public, instead of letting it lie. The message isn’t plowed into the viewer’s retina, but it isn’t exactly subtle either.

The most engaging part is Smith’s personal journey, who in many ways is a cipher for the everyman of this society; one that tries to stay out of trouble, but is dragged into it and forced to react in a manner neither he nor the authorities prefer. Smith’s cynicism towards the working class issues is very simply but cleverly visualized in him violently turning off a folk song on his car radio, and his total lack of understanding and empathy towards the authorities’ motives is repeatedly seen in his unsettled gaze and piercing but confused eyes, a gaze emphatically introduced in his very first frame on screen.

Sam Neill staring intensely in Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs

Smith never wants any part of what’s happening to him, be it in his broken relationship with his wife-turned-revolutionary or the police’s insistence on him being an insurgent, and Neill’s portrayal is nothing short of gripping. In his first high-profile leading role (he had done two films before this, the obscure Ashes and Landfall), Neill’s acting is still very rough around the edges, but one can already notice certain unmistakable strengths in his performance.

Like mentioned before, Donaldson takes full advantage of Neill’s strong facial features, focusing intensely and repeatedly on Smith’s face and eyes in prolonged, strained and uncomfortable reactions to what’s happening to him. Mirrored with the apathetic, depersonalized gaze of the members of the special police, or the desperately agitated demeanor of insurgence member Bullen (Ian Mune), he becomes the story’s anchor. There’s nothing smooth about it, but it keeps the film afloat, even during its rougher stretches, like a dragged-out chase through a town and subsequently the forest, which leads up to a muted but fitting climax.

The film, notable as a trail-blazer in New Zealand’s young film industry, is ambitious in scale and narrative, but like both Neill’s acting and Donaldson’s directing, it is still a rough construct. Sound editing and music is very choppy while the cinematography is absolutely top-notch, providing stunning wide shots in combination with an atmosphere of utter claustrophobia for the protagonist.

Final Verdict: Sleeping Dogs is an ambitious film but not without its flaws. Its political message is potent but simplistically presented at times, and the third act could have done with a few cuts for better flow, after a gripping build-up. However, Sam Neill shows unmistakable talent in his first notable leading role and his sometimes rough but always gripping performance is the unquestionable driving force of the film, and is among the better debuts for any actor in recent decades.

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