Producers: Deborah Glover, Pouya Shahbazian, Bill Collage, Henry Winterstern, Arun Kumar, Mark Fasano and Adam Cooper   Director: Adam Cooper   Screenplay: Adam Cooper and Bill Collage   Cast: Russell Crowe, Karen Gillan, Marton Csokas, Thomas M. Wright, Harry Greenwood, Tommy Flanagan, Pacharo Mzembe, Elizabeth Blackmore, Paula Arundell and Lynn Gilmartin   Distributor: The Avenue

Grade: C

In pulp novels of the 1940s and 1950s and the film noirs based on them, it was amnesia or alcohol-induced memory loss that often afflicted the protagonist trying to figure out the mystery about who was responsible for the corpse.  Now dementia is the favored explanation, as it is in this slow-moving thriller adapted from Eugen Chirovici’s 2017 novel “The Book of Mirrors.”

Ex-cop Roy Freeman (Russell Crowe), who was fired after a drunk driving incident, is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and undergoing experimental treatment for it that’s left him bald and with implants in his scalp.  He’s requested by the Clean Hands innocence project to visit Isaac Samuel (Pacharo Mzembe), who’s on death row for the murder of Professor Joseph Wieder (Marton Csokas), of which he was convicted largely on the basis of the investigation Freeman conducted with his now-retired partner Jimmy Remis (Tommy Flanagan) a decade earlier.  The pair even got him to confess. 

Encouraged by his doctor to exercise his mind with puzzles, Roy agrees to go over the case when challenged by the understandably antagonistic convict, and the film follows him as he doggedly refreshes his memory by studying files and interviewing witnesses as well as Remis, whom he hasn’t seen in years.  His investigation also takes him to a manuscript left behind by a dead man, Richard Finn (Harry Greenwood), a graduate student who once served as an assistant to Wieder, and who was looking into the murder himself.

Finn’s research led him to believe that another student, Laura Baines (Karen Gillan), who was both collaborating with the professor and romantically involved with both Wieder and Finn, might have been implicated in the murder.  Freeman takes up this train of thought, looking into Baines’s later life and the subject of the research she engaged in with Wieder, which centered on the development of drugs that could erase crippling memories resulting from trauma.  He makes what seems like progress by interrogating Wayne Devereaux (Thomas M. Wright), a rough fellow who worked maintenance at Waterford University back in the day, as well as a variety of others he tracks down.

The problem is that no one Roy talks to could be considered a reliable source, nor can Finn’s book—which Cooper, taking on directing duties for the first time, presents as essentially a separate chapter in the narrative. In Ben Nott’s cinematography it’s more brightly colored than the rest of the picture (shot in grays and blues in Melbourne, Australia, though the action is set somewhere in the U.S.A.,).  When one adds the blazingly fuzzy collages Cooper puts together with editor Matt Villa to represent Freeman’s flashbacks, the result is a bizarrely confounding parade of misdirection, with perspectives always shifting, suspicion flitting from person to person, identities left insecure, and a photograph obscured by broken glass returned to so often that it’s obviously an important clue being kept from us until the film comes to the big revelation of whodunit.  Unfortunately, if you’ve watched many of those old noirs about memory-impaired investigators, you’ll be able to predict the solution that this one is destined, by hook or crook (in this case, more the latter), to reach.

One might also quibble over the film’s depiction of Alzheimer’s; the movie begins with Freeman having to post labels all over his apartment reminding him of who he is and even the most mundane matters, but as he progresses in his investigation, his mental acuity increases; it’s not unlike films about people suffering from supposedly terminal diseases who seem perfectly fine except for the occasional coughing fit or bleeding nose.  And Roy gets appreciably sharper when, as a recovering alcoholic, he decides to abandon his long period of sobriety and start drinking again; your reaction to that plot twist could be decidedly negative. 

Complexity isn’t necessarily a vice in a thriller, of course, but the labyrinthine structure in this one is compounded by Cooper’s ponderous direction, which together with Villa’s editing makes for glacial pacing.  Penelope Southgate’s nondescript production design (save for the murder room, curiously untouched over the years) and David Hirschfelder’s gloomy score add to the dankness of it all.

The measured nature of the film does, however, allow Crowe the scope to add more nuance to his performance than might otherwise be possible.  Except when hobbled by the plot’s more heavy-handed contrivances, he’s actually quite good.  Among the other players, Gillan is less convincing as a femme fatale than one might have anticipated, but Csokas brings elegant nastiness to the doomed professor, while Greenwood is suitably eager as his younger rival.  Wright and Flanagan both make their characters not just slightly unsavory, but definitely untrustworthy.

“Sleeping Dogs” is intriguing enough to keep you watching, even when it confuses you, but in the end this mystery about faulty memory proves pretty forgettable.