For almost half of the year, the sun never rises on the Alaskan tundra above the Arctic Circle; for another five months, it never sets. To visitors, the constant daylight of summer in the Land of the Midnight Sun can be punishing, as we see in Insomnia, director Christopher (Memento) Nolan’s remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same title (admired by some but unseen by many more, including me).
When seasoned LA detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) arrives in the fictional Alaskan town of Nightmute to investigate the murder of a 17-year-old girl, he quickly takes control of the situation. He’s decisive, observant, methodical. Then comes his first stumble: Standing by a window in a stream of sunshine, Dormer announces that he wants to question the victim’s boyfriend immediately, pulling him right out of his high-school classes in order to catch him off-guard. Someone points out that it’s ten o’clock. When Dormer doesn’t blink, the other shoe drops: "At night."
Daylight floods Dormer’s life, relentless, ubiquitous — like the penetrating glare of the ongoing Internal Affairs probe back in LA, where Dormer may or may not have something to hide. Like the searching gaze of Alaskan local cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) as she investigates Dormer’s account of a second killing that occurs when an attempt to catch the killer goes tragically awry. Like "the eye of God that will not blink," as Roger Ebert describes the Arctic Circle’s midnight sun in his review of the original film.
"A good cop can’t sleep because he’s missing a piece of the puzzle. A bad cop can’t sleep because his conscience won’t let him." These words, allegedly once spoken by Dormer himself, now come back to haunt him. Night after night Dormer lies awake in his hotel room, the sunlit window wreaking havoc with his circadian rhythm; day after day Dormer feels the effects of the lack of sleep.
Already haggard-looking on arrival, Dormer nevertheless starts out sharp and effective, missing nothing as he reexamines the victim’s body, finding details that eluded earlier examiners. "This guy, he crossed the line," Dormer pronounces, "and he didn’t even blink. You don’t come back from that."
But lines aren’t always so clear-cut when you cross them. What lines has Dormer crossed in his long career of putting away bad guys? Do his earlier compromises (and his worries about the Internal Affairs inquiry — and of course his lack of sleep) affect his judgment in a split-second decision during a botched operation on a fog-bound day? Does all this then lead him to cross another line — not for the sake of putting away the bad guy this time, but to protect his own good name?
Then again, is there a difference, given that a scandal involving Dormer could lead to the convicts who went to prison on his word coming up for retrial, possibly acquittal? What other lines will Dormer find it possible, even necessary, to cross in order to prevent that? Will he kill a guilty man who knows his secrets? Acquiesce to the framing of an individual who, while not quite innocent, certainly isn’t guilty of anything like the crime he’s being set up for?
These ambiguities and others are held up in Insomnia to the harsh light of day. It’s film noir without the noir — a device that, when pioneered by the original film, led some to use the phrase "film blanche." If the ending seems perhaps a bit whitewashed, it’s still a nicely cautionary conclusion to this well-done morality play.
To further complicate matters, the actual killer — a mystery writer named David Finch (Robin Williams in a career-changing role) — knows more about Dormer’s situation than the detective is comfortable with, and sounds creepily reasonable as he talks about what he did, what Dormer did, and where they go from here.
Both Pacino and Williams have the potential to go over the top as actors, but Nolan elicits restrained, effective performances from each of them, and their cat-and-mouse sparring is riveting. Pacino comes across as wary and weary, relying increasingly on pure instinct as lack of sleep erodes his other faculties; Williams is repressed, introspective, and creepily ingratiating, eager to explain that he and Dormer aren’t so different after all. It’s Pacino’s best work in years, and, though some may be unable to get past Williams’ comic baggage, one of the most effective performances of his career. (It’s also his second of three back-to-back creepy bad-guy roles: First came his murderous TV host in Death to Smoochy, next up is what looks like a voyeuristic stalker in 1 Hour Photo.)
As Dormer’s small-town junior colleague, Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry) is the third leg of this triangle; she’s chipper and eager, somewhat overawed by the big-city detective whose work she knows so well, but with an intelligence and competence belying her inexperience.
Inevitably, Insomnia will be judged against two other films: the Norwegian original, and Nolan’s most recent effort, critical darling Memento. The latter comparison, at any rate, is unfair: What made Memento so startlingly novel was essentially an editing gimmick (not a mere gimmick, since it has a plot-level rationale, but a gimmick nevertheless), a backwards-winding story that kept the audience as in the dark as its memory-impaired antihero.
In Insomnia, though Nolan has a much more straightforward story to tell, he does so with equal skill, elevating the film’s intriguing but conventional plot elements with striking cinematography, forceful imagery, and the gripping interactions of the three principals. There’s a memorable set piece involving a foot chase over a logjam at a pulp mill that ends in a nightmarish death trap; and the vistas of Alaskan wilderness, particularly the opening aerial footage of a hauntingly rugged glacier, are as visually compelling as any of the otherworldly sights in George Lucas’s latest Star Wars effects extravaganza.
With respect to the original Insomnia, some critics have complained that Pacino’s character is less ambiguous and morally compromised than his counterpart in the original, who isn’t above framing an innocent or seducing a minor to advance his investigation, and has been said in the end to seem if anything less likable and reasonable than the murderer.
Not having seen the original, I have to say I appreciate the fact that Dormer, though morally compromised, isn’t an unsympathetic figure. Nor can I see that making the murderer preferrable to the cop is an intrinsically meritorious achievement; I can imagine appreciating a film that did this, but I can’t see criticizing one for not doing it. At least you can care about the characters and the events — something I couldn’t say after watching Memento, for all its brilliant storytelling. Insomnia is a satisfying thriller that confirms Christopher Nolan as a talented filmmaker to watch.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.