Russell Crowe in a Scrappy Dementia Noir

“Sleeping Dogs,” starring Russell Crowe as a retired cop with Alzheimer’s disease, is a half-rusted scrap heap of a detective mystery. It’s patchy, it’s badly lit, it’s glum, it’s overloaded with suspects, and it’s almost proud of its contrivances. Yet in its logy, booby-trapped way, it keeps you watching.

Crowe, with a white beard and shaved head that make him look like Santa Claus as a melancholy biker, plays Roy Freeman, who was forced to turn in his badge after he caused a drunk-driving accident. Now, he’s in the thick of serious midstage dementia; he has written labels on masking tape and plastered them around his apartment, so that he’ll be reminded of everything from his own name to where the hot water is. The gloss on “Memento” is obvious enough, but it’s also a coincidence that the film is being released just a week after “Knox Goes Away,” Michael Keaton’s entrancing thriller about a hit man with dementia. That movie is artful; this one, directed and co-written by Adam Cooper, feels made for VOD. But it’s not every threadbare piece of dementia noir that has an actor who can brood like Russell Crowe.

Roy has two fresh incisions on the top of his head, the result of an experimental surgery he has undergone to stimulate new neural pathways. As the film goes on, his memory starts to come back, very slowly, in hallucinatory flashes. But first he’s contacted by a death-row prisoner, Isaac (Pacharo Mzembe), who Roy helped to put away 10 years ago after getting him to confess to a murder. Isaac, who’s about to be executed, now claims he’s innocent; we believe him because there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise. Yet he admits that he was right there, in the house, the night that Joseph Wieder, a star professor at Waterford College, was clubbed to death with a baseball bat.

Whodunit? The movie leaps back to an academic love triangle that’s staged with a faux-sophistication so eager it’s borderline kitsch. Márton Csókás, slicing the ham with debonair cunning, plays Prof. Wieder as an old-school campus mentor-seducer who lives in high style and peppers his speech with unctuous pauses. His adoring lab assistant, Laura Baines, is played by Karen Gillan as a glittering, flame-haired polymath who we know within moments of meeting her will be the film’s femme fatale, because no one this brilliant would also be this sweet. And there’s Laura’s latest conquest, a misanthropic aspiring novelist played by Harry Greenwood, who is tall, with longish hair and a nerdish whine, and who knows how to spotlight the self-loathing encoded in a certain kind of “intellectual” banter.

We see the story played out from multiple points of view, with each character’s version filling in a piece of the puzzle. But even as the big picture comes into focus, it doesn’t make what happens any more convincing. There’s a mysterious memoir/manuscript, called “The Mirror Effect,” that several characters claim to have written. There are other suspects, like the professor’s handyman, played by Thomas M. Wright with a touch of Charles Manson, as well as Roy’s former partner (Tommy Flanagan), who appears to have masterminded a cover-up. And there are a few real howlers, such as: How can Roy, early on, ask intricate questions referencing social media when he can’t even remember his own name? And who would try to get rid of a murder weapon by burying it in the backyard of the house where the murder took place, right in the middle of the lawn, in a rectangle of earth that sticks out like a sore thumb?

What works is the way Roy, stripped of his memory, now sees the world. It’s with a newly open mind. The way Crowe plays it, his eyes locked in some insular zone between beady and innocent, Roy’s cognitive impairment actually helps him solve the crime. And as his memory comes crawling back, what he learns, of course, is that he’s more involved than he knew. “Sleeping Dogs” is a facile, halfway clever piece of string-pulling, but that’s all it would be if the film didn’t have Crowe to charge it with a hush of regret.


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