Movie Information

Genre: Thriller
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Paul Dooley, Martin Donovan, Jonathan Jackson
Rated: R

Christopher Nolan hit the bull’s eye last year with the jigsaw-puzzle thriller, Memento, a film I have never quite gotten beyond thinking was more clever than genuinely good. It’s a pleasure then to encounter his follow-up film, Insomnia, and find that it’s both clever and genuinely good — very, very good. The problems I had with Memento — specifically, the complete lack of an emotional center and insufficient thematic weight to justify all the trouble — are almost entirely absent here, which may have much to do with the fact that Nolan did not himself write the screenplay this round. First-time screenwriter Hillary Seitz penned the script from a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name by Erik Skjoldbjaerg (Prozac Nation), transferring the action from the Norway to Alaska. The two films are very different, even though they share the same basic plot and a number of incidents. Spare, somber and generally rather cold, the Norwegian film almost seems like a rough sketch for the American counterpart, which is considerably more complicated and offers a far weightier theme. In terms of theme — or lack thereof — it’s ironic to note that the original Insomnia has more in common with Memento than Nolan’s Insomnia does. Where Memento was structurally complex, Insomnia is emotionally complex. The story involves two L.A. detectives, Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan, Pipe Dream), sent to the little town of Nightmute, Ala. to help investigate the brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl. Dormer is an extremely high-profile, class “A” detective who’s currently feeling the heat of an Internal Affairs investigation — a situation made even more difficult by the fact that Hap intends to take I.A.’s deal and spill what he knows, even though it will sling considerable mud on Dormer. As they undertake the investigation, the tension between the two is palpable, even though their working relationship seems intact. Or is it? When Dormer sets up a trap for the killer, he sees an indistinct figure in the fog and shoots, killing his partner. The question then arises as to just how accidental this shooting is. Much as Dormer has said about the killer — that he’s crossed the line and will do so again — so does Dormer cross a line of his own again. Having once rigged the evidence in a case to convict a man he knew to be guilty (convinced that the end justifies the means), he finds it an easy matter to rework the evidence of the shooting in order to pin it on the murderer. The problem is that there is one witness to the accident: the killer himself, hack mystery novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams). Finch attempts to blackmail Dormer into being his “partner,” wanting him to help remonkey the evidence to point to the victim’s boyfriend, Randy Stetz (Jonathan Jackson). In Finch’s mind, this is also a case of the end justifying the means, since Stetz had treated the girl badly — routinely beating her and cheating on her with her best friend. Everywhere Dormer turns, some part of his past turns up to haunt him: a killer who, no matter how much he wants to deny it, is too much like him for comfort, and an eager young cop (Hilary Swank) who hero-worships him and keeps accidentally making things worse for him by adhering to principles Dormer himself set forth early in his career. Further complicating matters is the Alaskan summer, when the sun never sets, making it impossible for him to sleep — which seems to throw his transgressions into greater focus. As his own guilt or innocence becomes less and less clear to him, Dormer disintegrates, seeming to settle for the tidy solution offered by Finch. But the film has one more twist — the twist that gives it its greatest thematic and moral weight. Ultimately, what Noland and Seitz give us is a classic variant on the concept of sin, guilt and redemption, dressed in top-drawer thriller terms. It’s the fact that Nolan never forgets that he’s directing a thriller that truly makes Insomnia soar, since he invariably keeps the action moving in an entertaining and exciting manner. Then too, the three central performances are nothing short of brilliant. Pacino has rarely been this restrained — or this good. A fine actor too often handed projects such as Scent of a Woman (“Hoo hah”) with calculated “big scenes” that seem far too tailored to someone’s Oscar-bid idea of “the sort of thing Pacino does best,” Pacino here undertakes a complex characterization that contains no hint of being a specifically designed vehicle. Robin Williams also brilliantly plays against type — indeed, against two types, since he’s neither likable nor manic here. It’s probably Williams’ most subdued performance since his supporting role in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again, and it’s all the creepier and more effective for it. Equal to the two stars in her own way is Hilary Swank in a role that’s deceptively more complex than it appears, since it requires her to go from gung-ho enthusiasm to suspicion that her hero isn’t quite what he seems to complete disillusionment to a more understanding view of things — and finally to a point where she has to make a significant moral/ethical choice of her own. The film just barely misses being perfect by the insertion of a late scene that makes little dramatic sense (almost to the point of being funny), yet is essential to the movie’s thematic point and won’t fit anywhere else in the narrative. It doesn’t ruin Insomnia, which emerges as an intensely disturbing neo-noir “instant classic,” but it does slightly mar its otherwise impeccable surface.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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