“A good cop can’t sleep because he can’t find a piece of the puzzle. A bad cop can’t sleep because of a guilty conscience.” LAPD homicide detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) once said it, but he doesn’t recall.
Sent with his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), to solve a murder in a secluded Alaska town, the two are greeted by local cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who’s smart and quick-learning, but small-town and fresh-out-of-the-academy green. She immediately looks up to the “big-city detective” as a well of knowledge and experience, whether she should or not.
Dormer is so skillful at getting inside the thoughts of a killer that he’s able to piece together clues from a dead girl’s body as if he murdered her himself. He seems to have the world of murder in a tight grip, until one rogue shot on a fog-riddled stakeout undermines his state of mind.
This is the first film for director Christopher Nolan after causing a stir with Memento in 2000, which he directed and wrote. It sure looks like he’s planning a long career of pushing our buttons inside a beautifully crafted package — at least I hope so. Part mystery, part moral dilemma, but all seductively intriguing, the film takes a typical movie trope (cops after a killer) and deals with it in an atypical way, sucking you into the land of the midnight sun, where never-ending light becomes the enemy.
Dormer can’t sleep. He tapes butcher paper to his hotel window to block out the sun — or is it the truth he’s trying to tape out? Nolan’s use of sumptuous textures, like the sunlight filtering through paper and tape onto Dormer’s golden hands, makes Insomnia a visual delicacy. When Dormer loses his footing and sinks into freezing blue water underneath cut logs, light shimmering through the cracks at his grasping hands turns a wet grave into soft, flickering, fairy-tale beauty.
For this remake of the 1997 Norwegian film, Hillary Seitz’s script keeps the stark, cold, desolate atmosphere, but sets it inside the U.S. territory and culture of Nightmute, Alaska, halibut capital of the world.
In Insomnia, Pacino and Williams finally break out of their ongoing labyrinth of regurgitated, predictable roles, at last challenging all of their years of acting experience, pushing themselves into a thespian battle at the edge of a cliff. Instead of riding on the typically abrasive, foul-mouthed, “I won’t take any shit” character profile he’s used in so many films, Pacino goes inside himself. This makes his true intentions virtually unreadable to the audience, yet he’s obviously cooking and seething with something behind his eyes. Many of his past roles portray a controlling, heavy-handed hothead, but this cop, although starting out with the upper hand, quickly loosens his grip, forcing Pacino into a much more vulnerable, human and welcome change of character.
Don’t ever piss off a writer. They create and manipulate realities on a daily basis, and if they decide to use their powers of thought for unseemly purposes, things get twisted and ugly. Reclusive novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams) works like a calculating parasite, worming his way into Dormer’s own fate, until both of their futures entwine in a psychological mess that marries their senses of self-preservation and their destinies. Williams has much to offer, but has rarely exhibited the depths of his talents as well as he does here. The fact that we’re used to seeing him spinning out of control, the mad manufacturer of a laugh a second, adds to the disturbing quality of the calm, ultra-aware and intelligent Finch. He’s always one or two thoughts ahead of everyone else, because he has to be to survive.
Calling Dormer in the middle of another sleepless night, Finch’s soothing voice both becomes a stalking reminder of living horrors and a comforting guardian to the detective, understanding all of his internal demonic conflicts too well. The two are drawn to each other both for practical reasons and because they share a camaraderie in having crossed the line of no return.
Under the expert direction of Nolan, Swank, Pacino and Williams make a fine chemical mix; their actions and counter-reactions bouncing off each other like a three-way chess game, with Williams out for blood and Pacino secretly trying to let Swank win, all playing with that dangerously fragile thing we call life.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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