Movie review, 'Insomnia'

Christopher Nolan's previous movie, "Memento," was a thriller for film obsessives to love. His new "Insomnia" is one for general moviegoers to like.

The new movie is smart and well-crafted, and it boasts complex characters, effective star turns and evocative photography of a small Alaskan town in summertime, when the sun never sets. It's a solid Hollywood thriller.

But given that movie geeks paved the way for Nolan's mainstream break, we should be forgiven for hoping for more. The original "Insomnia," the striking 1997 debut from Norwegian writer-director Erik Skjoldbjaerg (who filmed the yet-to-be-released "Prozac Nation"), is an especially taut, atmospheric thriller in which Stellan Skarsgard plays a tainted cop who can't sleep while investigating a murder in the land of the midnight sun, in that case northern Norway.

Nolan, meanwhile, proved himself a gifted, original storyteller with the complex backward-chronology structure of "Memento," a movie that generates great suspense as it reveals what already has happened - and invites repeat viewings among those eager to place every puzzle piece.

You figure Nolan wouldn't try another fractured narrative right now (his impressive, low-budget debut film, "Following," also features one), but the prospect of him applying his touch to such juicy material, with Al Pacino as the lead character, was nonetheless intriguing.

Nolan didn't write the script this time; he directed a screenplay by first-timer Hillary Seitz, and they don't so much reinvent the previous film as refine it. The settings have been Americanized, but the setup is pretty much the same: A veteran homicide detective, Will Dormer (the last name a play on the Spanish verb dormir, "to sleep"), and his Los Angeles Police Department partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), have been called way out of town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. Dormer, it turns out, is carrying more baggage than his luggage. Back in L.A. he's been snared in an internal affairs investigation involving planted evidence.

Here's one area where Nolan and Seitz have deepened the existing material: Dormer's relationship with his partner - already a contrast between Pacino's ruffled manner and the younger Donovan's Zen-like cool - has been complicated by Hap's scheduled testimony in the case back home. Their growing tension adds a layer of ambiguity and muddled motives when a tragic mishap occurs during a seaside chase in the fog.

The object of that chase is the chief murder suspect, mystery writer Walter Finch, played with doe-eyed calculation by Robin Williams, who doesn't let himself get too much in the way of his character. One of the pleasures of "Insomnia" is that although it takes the form of a whodunit, it becomes more surprising after its cards are laid out on the table and Dormer and Finch are drawn together by the damning evidence they hold against each other.

More routine is the rivalry between Dormer and the local cops, particularly the one played by Nicky Katt with an unflattering shoe-brush mustache. Happier to work with him is junior officer Ellie Burr (an appealing Hilary Swank), who has read Dormer's writings and admired him from afar. It's inevitable she'll get her first big case as well as a reality check regarding Dormer's true character.

That character, alas, is less compelling than in the original. Granted, I'm making comparisons with a movie that 98 percent of the current "Insomnia" audience won't have seen, but it's instructive to note that, not for the first time, a foreign-language film has been remade with big American stars and become more conventional in the process.

Skarsgard's haunted, magnetic cop is compromised at his core. He runs red lights, is tempted by the advances of school girls and doesn't hesitate to shoot a dog if he needs to use the bullet as false evidence.

Dormer's flaws are presented more as the result of bad decisions that have snowballed atop one another. This way he can be redeemed in tidy Hollywood fashion.

When the murder victim's best girlfriend flirts with him, he gets righteously angry, and he wouldn't think of shooting a dog that isn't already dead. If you still feel shaky in the morality department, Nolan and Seitz add a standard shoot-'em-up climax that resolves everything.

Pacino is charismatic without getting too showy. With his droopy-dog face and raspy voice, he could play weariness in his sleep, though here he doesn't get to; the 24-hour daylight and Dormer's conscience have wreaked havoc on the character's body clock.

Here, the screenplay has a tendency to spell out what the original movie suggested; there's more talk about Dormer's sleep problems and less time spent showing him battling the blazing light that invades his hotel room.

That said, the movie is nicely shot by Wally Pfister, who also provided the camerawork on "Memento." The opening, stunning, plane's-eye-view shot of the jagged Alaskan glaciers gives an immediate sense of the desolation the detectives are entering. The filmmakers also use the town setting (actually about 40 miles from Vancouver) to their advantage, with the high point an exciting chase across rows of waterborne logs.

Although the pacing sometimes grows slack, "Insomnia" keeps you alert as you try to decide whether Dormer or Finch is cat or mouse. It's a crafty story told with more style and gray areas than your average thriller.

It's just not groundbreaking and, unlike "Memento," won't send you to bed with your mind racing. Now that Nolan has shown he can adapt someone else's work for a broad audience, here's hoping he'll return to exploring his own voice.

3 stars

Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Hillary Seitz; photographed by Wally Pfister; edited by Dody Dorn; production designed by Nathan Crowley; music by David Julyan; produced by Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday, May 24. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: R (language, some violence, brief nudity).
Will Dormer - Al Pacino
Walter Finch - Robin Williams
Ellie Burr - Hilary Swank
Rachel Clement - Maura Tierney
Hap Eckhart - Martin Donovan Fred Duggar - Nicky Katt

Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.

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