Screenplay : Hillary Seitz (based on an original by Nikolai Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Al Pacino (Will Dormer), Robin Williams (Walter Finch), Hilary Swank (Ellie Burr), Maura Tierney (Rachel Clement), Martin Donovan (Hap Eckhart), Nicky Katt (Fred Duggar), Paul Dooley (Chief Charles Nyback), Jonathan Jackson (Randy Stetz)
Like the original, Christopher Nolan's remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia is less of a police procedural than it is a morality play. Pitting a seasoned police detective against an intelligent murderer, it moves along familiar lines for roughly half the film before everything becomes suddenly blurred when the detective and the killer join forces. All blacks and whites become shades of gray, and it becomes hard to distinguish the truth about anything, all of which is flattened out in the harsh, perpetual sunlight of northern Alaska, where the story is set.
It is not surprising that Nolan would choose this project as the follow-up to his groundbreaking independent hit Memento (2001). Although the narrative in Insomnia is generally straightforward, fractured now and then by ambiguous recurring flashbacks (or are they flashforwards?), what it has most in common with Memento is its cagey exploration of the elusiveness of Truth. Just as the vengeful protagonist of Memento willfully deluded himself into believing in his righteous cause, so does the main character in Insomnia, a rugged, world-weary police detective from Los Angeles sent out to the tiny northern Alaska town of Nightmute to investigate the beating death of a 17-year-old girl. Nightmute, which is humorously referenced as the halibut fishing capital of the world, is a sleepy logging town that is so far north along the earth's curvature that, during the summer, the sun never sets. Thus, it's daytime all day long, which puts an interesting visual twist on the film noir and its constant equation of darkness with moral ambiguity. Here, everything feels raw and exposed because it's impossible to get away from the light, even when one tapes down the blinds.
The detective's name is Will Dormer, and he is played with exhausted effectiveness by Al Pacino. Dormer and his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), are sent to Alaska on loan from the L.A. robbery and homicide office to help solve the murder, but it's not just good will between departments that results in this temporary moves. One of the major additions to the story supplied by screenwriter Hillary Seitz is that there is an internal affairs investigation of Dormer and Eckhart's cases, and Eckhart has decided to cut a deal. The details are left purposefully vague, and although Eckhart does not believe that Dormer will be implicated, Dormer seems to think otherwise. He has something to hide, but what? Thus, their going to Alaska is, in many ways, a momentary escape from the pending storm, even though its tendrils follow them wherever they go, as inescapable as the light of the midnight sun.
Early on, Dormer and the other investigators set a trap for the killer, and, in the ensuing chase along a densely fogged beach, Dormer shoots and kills Eckhart. The accidental nature of this incident is equivocal, as Dormer has a good motive to kill his partner, although the fog and the confusion of the chase could just as easily be to blame. What is not equivocal, though, is what Dormer does in response: He covers up his culpability by claiming that the suspect shot Eckhart. Thus, not only does he falsify his report, but he finds himself later having to manufacture evidence in order to back up his claims, going so far as to switch bullets for a ballistics test. A young and eager detective in Nightmute's police department, Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), is assigned to investigate Eckhart's death. But, like everyone else in the film, she is conflicted because she looks up to Dormer as a hero, which makes it that much more difficult when her instincts lead her to believe that the incident did not go down as he reported it, thus calling into question the very notion of heroism and role models.
As the days drag by, Dormer finds himself completely unable to sleep, and his growing disorientation due to lack of shuteye serves as a clever metaphor for his own moral disorientation. When examining the body of the dead girl, Dormer declares about the killer, "This guy stepped over a line and didn't even blink." The same could be said about Dormer himself, especially once the killer, a reclusive crime novelist named Walter Finch (Robin Williams), contacts him and they begin to play a chess game of blame, as Finch informs Dormer that he saw him shoot his partner. Thus, they are both privy to incriminating knowledge about the other: Dormer knows Finch is guilty of killing the girl, but Finch knows that Dormer is guilty of killing Eckhart. They hold nooses around each other's necks, and the second half of the film plays out this scenario, seeing who will try to hang the other first.
With Insomnia, Nolan shows that his achievement in Memento was no fluke, although this time around he plays it safer, working with Oscar-winning movie stars, utilizing a hefty budget, and sticking to a linear progression that challenges only those who want to look deeper. The film as a whole could have used a little tightening, though, as it seems to move much slower than it should, which is underscored by a few conventional action set-pieces that seem somehow isolated from the narrative because they work as nothing more than ends to themselves.
Nolan certainly solidifies that he is an excellent director of actors, as he elicits strong, effective performances from both Pacino and Williams, two Hollywood actors who have been known to overreach in the past. Pacino puts his wearied, raw demeanor to great use, and his growing disorientation is an unnervingly palpable experience. Williams is not on screen until the second half of the film, but he does a fine job of portraying the wily killer, who doesn't think of himself as such. Nolan makes great use of Williams' visage--I had never before been quite so aware of his unusual features, from the jutting underbite to that long, narrow hawk's nose.
Nolan demonstrates a strong visual sense in other areas, as well, which is strengthened by Dody Dorn's excellent editing that jars the viewer with well-placed quick cuts and a repetition of imagery (particularly an extreme close-up of blood soaking into cotton fibers) that give the film a tense, uneasy feeling and only achieve full meaning at the end. Not surprisingly, Insomnia is ultimately a more conventionally satisfying film than Memento, as it provides a modicum of resolution and redemption at the end, suggesting that, in this case at least, the truth will be known. Even if Dormer has sold his own soul, he saves at least one other person from doing the same.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick