Director Christopher Nolan has made quite a name for himself. His finale to the most recent Batman trilogy is set to hit theaters soon and is largely considered one of this summer’s most anticipated films.
To date, I’ve seen all of Nolan’s films and with the exception of 2002’s “Insomnia” I’ve been monumentally impressed by each of them. So, in lieu of an advance screening of “Dark Knight Rises” I thought I’d go back and see if perhaps I’d have a differing opinion of “Insomnia.”
The film is about two Los Angeles detectives who are dispatched to the remote Alaskan town of Night Mute to help out with a murder investigation of a teenage girl, Kay Connell. These detectives, Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are not only coming to the aid of an old friend in Alaska but they seem to be running from a Internal Affairs investigation of their own department back in Los Angeles.
We’re quickly introduced to Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) one of the local police detectives. Through her we learn — via an unabashed hero worship — that Detective Dormer is something of a legend in the police force. It seems as though the Night Mute police have really called in the big guns for this strange murder investigation.
What seems like a straight-forward murder investigation Who-dunnit quickly derails as an accidental shooting leaves Dormer’s partner, Eckhart dead on a cold Alaskan beach. Detective Burr is assigned to investigate the Eckhart shooting whilst Dormer continues with his somewhat unorthodox methods to nab the killer from the Connell case.
We begin to see that, like most of Nolan’s films, nothing is quite what it seems. What makes “Insomnia” different than Nolan’s other works is that we the audience are in on the mystery. We see first hand what happened to Eckhart, and we know pretty early on in the film who the killer of Kay Connell is. The film pulls away from the mystery of who did what and jumps two feet into frozen Alaskan waters of why they did it.
Dormer suffers from near crippling insomnia due to Alaska’s months of sunshine without night. This lack of sleep begins to affect his perception, his judgement and his reality which brings on guilt as the second motivation of his sleeplessness.
Those familiar with Nolan’s earlier work, 2000’s “Memento” will recognize themes here. Characters in over their heads, moral quandaries and a failing sense of reality all work together to dig a deep hole for Pacino’s Detective Dormer. Pacino recognizes the internal conflict in this story is far more important than the external catch the crook theme. His acting is reserved and quiet. We see the heavy weight of guilt in his every move as he struggles between doing what is right and what will ensure the capture of Kay Connell’s killer.
The killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams) also presents himself as a man in two worlds. However what separates him from Pacino’s Dormer is a lack of remorse. An early line from Dormer summarizes Finch: “This guy crossed the line and didn’t even blink.”
I’ve always liked the hyper-kinetic Williams, more-so as a stand-up comedian than a comedic actor. Like Pacino, he too tones down a career of frivolity in exchange for a very serious and sinister performance. What makes Finch evil is not his crime but his ability to rationalize and stop at nothing to cover up what he’s done.
“Insomnia” is a study of people in horrendous situations. It’s a moral dilemma and a mystery wrapped up in a beautifully shot shell. The one fly in the ointment with the film is turning so much of the story inward lessens the excitement for the audience. We see great performances and in no way are disinterested in the characters, but there is a lack of excitement in giving too much away too quickly.
I’m not sure why I missed so much of the meat of this film the first time I watched it. I suppose I was expecting more of your typical action/thriller fare.
I feel it still holds true that “Insomnia” lacks the edge of your seat excitement that drives similar thrillers. However, the exploration into the psyches of Dormer and Finch is extremely compelling and well worth the watch.
In the end we learn that there is great darkness in the souls of even the best of men. Just like there are dark things that can happen, even in a land in which the sun never sets.
Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank
Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 118 minutes
Rated R for language, some violence and brief nudity