Film Reviews: Wednesday May 23, 2002
Nessun Dormer

In the eternal daylight of the magnificent Insomnia, evil never sleeps.

By Kristian Lin

There were better movies than Memento last year, but there weren’t any cleverer ones. Christopher Nolan’s revenge tragedy boasted a diabolically constructed plot that begged for obsessive repeated viewings. His follow-up film, Insomnia, doesn’t have that sort of gimmick, but in many ways it’s a better movie, a deliberate and potent chiller that gets you in a slow, tight death-grip. With this movie, Nolan shows that he’s not a one-trick pony but a major filmmaker in the early stages.

It starts when renowned LAPD homicide detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) arrive at a small town in northern Alaska to help solve the brutal beating murder of a 17-year-old girl. However, while chasing the killer across a foggy stretch of beach, Will shoots and kills his own partner. It’s an accident, but Hap was planning to implicate Will in an internal affairs investigation back in L.A., so Will lies on his report and frames the killer for Hap’s death. This creates more problems; the killer, a reclusive mystery novelist named Walter Finch (Robin Williams), has witnessed the shooting and tries to blackmail Will into helping him get away with the girl’s murder.

No wonder Will can’t sleep. His insomnia is worsened by the fact that the sun is up 24 hours a day, since it’s summer, and the case is north of the Arctic Circle. This fascinating detail is courtesy of the original version of this film, a similarly titled 1997 thriller directed by Erik Skjoldbærg about a Swedish cop working a case in Norway. Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister do wonders with the nonstop daylight. It’s often gray to reflect Will’s enervated state when he’s awake, but it’s blindingly yellow, searing through window shades and duct tape, when he’s trying to sleep. The shot of Will walking down a completely deserted, sunlit nighttime street is a surreal manifestation of the character’s isolation. The depiction of Will’s insomnia is reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s treatment of migraines and drug addiction in p and Requiem for a Dream. Through momentary hallucinations of the dead Hap, losses of camera focus, and Pacino’s bleary but determined stare, the movie powerfully captures how tedious it is to be unable to sleep, how it saps your strength and dulls your perceptions.

This film’s got much more than its technique to recommend it. Nolan and screenwriter Hillary Seitz greatly expand a small role from Skjoldbærg’s original, transforming a hard-bitten, middle-aged detective into a younger local cop (Hilary Swank) who idolizes Will, having studied his celebrated cases. Will takes her under his wing, and continues to mentor her even after she’s assigned to investigate Hap’s shooting. She’s inclined to take his word that the killer did it, but Will keeps subtly encouraging her to look deeper, even though he has every reason not to. It’s a nice change to see Swank playing someone bouncy and bright-eyed; the contrast between her and Pacino’s burned-out case who has heard every lie and every evasion is illuminating. Their relationship gives the movie emotional and dramatic heft, as the flawed Will tries to steer the younger cop clear of the traps he fell into.

These actors are good, but the deadly chill that this movie radiates comes straight from Robin Williams’ methodical, remorseless villain. Finch lives in Alaska, but there’s no place on Earth cold enough for this guy. His self-control is unnerving before he even shows up on screen — his victim’s body is calmly and meticulously cleaned, with hair washed and nails clipped, which all is somehow more unsettling than any rape or mutilation. Williams delivers most of his lines in his low undertone, but in a phone conversation where he relates how the murder happened, he subtly accelerates the rhythm of his speech to show Finch remembering his one flicker of emotion, and how it led to the girl’s death. It’s a deeply frightening scene.

The battle of wits between cop and killer is compelling without being ostentatiously intellectual. Finch knows that Will may strike a deal with him but will still look for other ways to point the finger at him. This role makes full use of Williams’ smarts, and creative use of his comic talent — on the odd occasion when Finch cracks a joke, it comes off as the grotesque humor of a man without a soul. As for Pacino, his Will seems weighed down by guilt over Hap’s death and a lifetime’s worth of bad choices. In asking Will to pin the murder on someone else, Finch appeals to Will’s desire to preserve his reputation, and Will recognizes that he has indulged that desire too often. Pacino’s haunted work here falls shy of his greatest tragic roles (The Godfather, Donnie Brasco), but the fact that it deserves comparison to those performances speaks for itself.

The added depth of this character is typical of the uncanny way the film takes its source material and enriches it. Skjoldbærg’s movie is a creepy little thriller with an ingenious visual hook, but Nolan’s remake is more than that. It’s a tragedy about a cop who makes one too many ethical compromises to catch bad guys. In the eternal daylight of Insomnia, there’s nowhere to hide one’s failings, or escape an ultimate reckoning.

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