Usually a promising independent director takes a wrong turn when he goes for
the big leagues. Thankfully, that is not the case with director Christopher
Nolan who made a big splash with the complex, suspenseful "Memento" in 2001 -
the one film of the year that was talked about all year round. "Insomnia" is
a remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller unseen by me, but if it is half as
psychologically complex or as thrillingly conveyed as this film, I suppose I
will have to make a visit to the video store soon.
Al Pacino plays yet another cop, this time a veteran cop with a deeply
troubling moral complex who has fostered a career of catching serial killers.
As soon as Will Dormer (Pacino) arrives in Nightmute, Alaska, to investigate
the brutal murder of a teenage girl, we already sense he has seen too much in
his work and is exhausted by the sheer banality of the job. In this case, the
town itself lends even more exhaustion to Will. You see Nightmute is a town
where in the winter, the nights are always bright. Will can't take it, trying
to cover his hotel windows with pillows and sheets but it is no use. He fails
to sleep and develops insomnia.
Will arrives in this town with his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan, who
appears to be in a somnolent state), both from the LAPD. Hap is ready to cut
a deal back home with the Internal Affairs department over Will's tampering
with evidence from prior cases. Will can't take it, and an accident involving
Hap while searching for the killer in a rain-drenched, rocky, remote area of
Alaska sinksWill even deeper into insomnia and moral dilemnas.
Two people catch on to Will's secrets. One is a smart, quick-learning rookie
(Hilary Swank), who learns as much about Will's persona as she does about
Will's police training. The other is the killer himself, a second-rate
mystery writer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), who discovers that Hap's
accident was no accident at all, and tries to clear himself of the murdered
girl by using Will. The twists pile up, Will's insomnia grows out of control,
and an innocent person may go to jail instead of Walter. Where will all this
lead? Somewhere between the murdered girl's ex-boyfriend and her own best
friend (), but that is just the beginning.
"Insomnia" does not submit to the usual cliches found in any typical thriller
involving cops and serial killers. The climax also doesn't evolve in a
typical fashion. The strength of the film lies in its psychological profiles
of its two main characters, Will and Walter. Their cat-and-mouse game is
strictly dependent on their personalities and their actions, not motivated by
twists generated by the screenwriter to be as superfluous and precious as
possible. Also worth mentioning is how the film deals with Will's immoral
actions, as we sense that his flaws and screwy ethics could slowly conspire
against him. We also begin to feel some measure of pity for Walter, despite
his murderous, controlled rage. In short, Williams does not play the killer
as a menacing psycho with obvious psychological and mental problems - he
plays him as the recluse he is with some measure of restraint. Pacino has a
few moments where he hollers but it all comes from his inability to sleep and
to deal with his past indiscretions. To say that Pacino and Williams have
never been better is to state the obvious - they have given their very best
performances by far.
It helps that director Nolan knows how to handle the mood and atmosphere, as
well as the actors. From slippery rocks to torn down cabins to floating logs
to a stunning opening sequence involving snowy formations along the Alaskan
border, "Insomnia" feels as close to a bleak noir thriller as "Fargo" did,
using daylight as evocative of danger as the nighttime. In one gripping
scene, we see floating logs that keep colliding and preventing the desperate
Will from rising to the surface of the water - it is as riveting as scenes
like it go.
"Insomnia" is a first-class thriller, expertly shot and staged and acted.
Thanks to director Nolan, Pacino, Williams and the rest of the fine cast,
this film is as good as mainstream thrillers can get. Rarely do character
nuance and observation seem as thrilling as they do here.
Copyright © 2002 Jerry Saravia