Review: Sleep Murder an inept, cynical stinker

Made-in-Iqaluit flick ruined by incompetent script, awful cast

By JIM BELL

There’s only one good thing that can be said about Sleep Murder, the dreadful little stinker of a movie shot two-and-a-half years ago in Iqaluit by Big Motion Pictures of Halifax: at least some Nunavut residents got pay days out of it.

Shot in Iqaluit and Halifax in 2003, Sleep Murder had its network premiere on APTN on Feb. 6 — the first time that many Iqaluit residents and other northern Canadians were able to see it. If you were unlucky enough to have tuned in, however, you would have discovered it wasn’t worth the wait.

Sleep Murder is “inspired,” the producers say, by the sad, grisly story of Jopie Atsiqtaq, also known as Jopie Peter, an Iqaluit man who in 1986 killed a mother and her son inside their Iqaluit home. In 1988, a jury of Rankin Inlet residents convicted him of second-degree murder. Although eligible since 1998 to be considered for parole, Atsiqtaq is still confined inside Drumheller penitentiary in Alberta.

As for the traumatized members of the family he victimized, they didn’t learn about the movie until reading about it in Nunatsiaq News. One enraged family member looked for a while into getting a lawyer to help her find a legal way of preventing the film from being made or shown.

It’s still not clear how the producers, Big Motion Pictures and Shaftesbury Films of Nova Scotia, got on to the story. But judged even by the low standards of English-Canadian film, their cynical adaptation of the Iqaluit double murder is an artistic and moral debacle.

Ex-Hollywood pretty boy Jason Priestly, best-known for playing Brandon Walsh on the TV series Beverly Hills 90210, is badly miscast as Peter Radwell, a Toronto lawyer hired to represent the Jopie Atsiqtaq character, whose name has been fictionalized as “Jimmy Tarniq.” Watching Priestly is like watching a comedian do a parody of a bad actor, but his inept performance does supply most of the film’s unintentional humour. Yes, he really is that bad.

Natar Ungalaaq of Igloolik, best known for his lead role in Atanarjuat, plays the Jimmy Tarniq role. Ungalaaq tries his best, but his efforts are defeated by David Fraser’s patronizing script, which portrays Jimmy Tarniq as an inarticulate, one-dimensional primitive. Ungalaaq gets to do a lot of intense staring, and his lines consist mostly of five- or six-word sentences of simple-minded baby-talk. It’s painful to watch.

After meeting Jimmy Tarniq in Iqaluit, Radwell, a stereotypically rapacious Bay Street yuppie, transforms himself into a stereotypically guilt-ridden do-gooder. He enlists forensic psychiatrist Macy Olsen, played by Kristin Booth, to evaluate his client. Her performance is little better than Priestly’s, but since her main function in the story is to provide Priestly with a sex partner, it doesn’t matter much. Predictably, they consummate their relationship in a lifeless bedroom scene devoid of either lust or emotion.

Olsen discovers that Jimmy Tarniq suffers from a rare sleep disorder that causes him to walk around and do weird stuff. By this point, you may feel like doing that too. In its last 45 minutes, Fraser’s script moves effortlessly from banality into incoherence. There’s a lot of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo about Frankenstein, television, and somnambulism, punctuated by ridiculously lurid flashbacks to the double-murder, but none of it is communicated in a manner than any viewer will understand.

Of course, there’s a courtroom climax containing just about every courtroom cliché you’ve ever seen on television. In this respect, Sleep Murder is quite similar to The Trial of Fortitude Bay another inept Canadian-content flick based on a grossly distorted account of the 1985 Naqitarvik trial in Arctic Bay. Both are notable for their cynical exploitation of Inuit culture, conveyed with no understanding or respect.

That may explain why CTV, for whom it was shot, never promoted Sleep Murder when they were supposed to broadcast it during the network’s 2003-04 season. Perhaps even they knew that Shaftesbury Films had sold them a smouldering bomb.

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