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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Insomnia

Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rated: R
RunTime: 115 Minutes
Release Date: May 2002
Genre: Suspense

*Also starring: Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Jonathan Jackson, Martin Donovan, Paul Dooley, Jay Brazeau

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

If you're among the one-third of American adults who have experienced insomnia for a prolonged period of time, you've probably not been reading film reviews. You'd also know what it's like to stare at the blinking digital figures as they light up on 3:13 a.m., 4:23 a.m. and then, just as you're about to go into REM it's 7:30 and the alarm wakes you up with a start. You've got to get up but the day is going to be a long one, especially if like Det. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) you're conducting an investigation in an American state during the months that the sun does not set. The endless daylight of Alaskan towns make the detective even more drowsy than he'd otherwise be and Mr. Pacino spends of good deal of Christopher Nolan's movie just dragging his tail around, eyes narrowing, just sufficiently aware of his surroundings to be both the butt of jokes of other cops and the guy that some of the local women learn to care for.

Hilary Seitz's script for this version based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgard and taking place in the Norwegian Arctic--is filmed by Wally Pfister mostly within the lavish natural beauty of British Columbia just forty miles from Vancouver. An opening scene shot in Valdez, Alaska sets the tone for a film that moves at a deliberate pace, as Mr. Nolan lets us in on the story's details bit by bit, so slowly in fact that the audience cannot be blamed for becoming impatient about the increasingly complex plot. For example, we know straight away that Will Dormer is under investigation by the police Internal Affairs department in his home district in L.A. and that his partner, Detective Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), may be about to spill the beans to turn on a dime on the celebrated detective in return for leniency.

As Dormer and Eckhart, sent by the L.A.P.D. to an Alaskan town to help the local cops investigate the murder of a 17-year- old girl, spot the suspected killer in the midst of a dense fog, Dormer shoots and kills his partner. Is it an accident or a deliberately calculated plan to shut the man up? Since the principal suspect in the murder case, novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams), has witnessed the shooting which Dormer tries to cover up by switching the offending bullet and planting the weapon on a high-school kid who is also suspected in the murder of the girl Finch engages in an unusual type of blackmail. Finch will agree not to report what he saw to the local police and in return Dormer will avoid implicating Finch in the murder of the young woman.

Though Robin Williams does not show up until half the movie is past, the film springs to life with the cat-and-mouse game initiated and enjoyed thoroughly by the writer. One suspects that Finch is planning to write a detective story, this one with a strong autobiographical overtone, about the game, particularly since his victim, a police detective who is sleep-challenged and guilt-ridden by both the Internal Affairs investigation being conducted in L.A. and by his shooting of his partner, is such a vital character.

The interplay between Robin Williams, who follows up his serious role in "Death to Smoochy" with an even more sober characterization here, is the heart of the film and while David Mamet probably could have done better with the script than Hillary Seitz bringing more wit, more bone-chilling suspense the interplay is custom made for the style of director Nolan, whose "Memento" last year dealt with an insomniac-like short-term memory loss of Guy Pearce's character.

While Williams successfully plays against type as a wily but serious murder suspect, Pacino for his part continues his signature role as a brooding antihero while at the same time substituting a meditative pose for his usual in-your-face flamboyancy. Hilary Swank also turns in an interesting role as a kind of rube cop, an admirer of the detective from the big city, but one who turns out to be the most clever person of the lot.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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