Caught Up in ‘Insomnia’s’ Deft Waking Nightmare
“When does it get dark around here,” Will Dormer asks the local cops in Nightmute, Alaska, the halibut fishing capital of the world, and they only smile. During the summer months this far north of the Arctic Circle, the only darkness, as the Shadow liked to say, lurks in the hearts of men, and there is plenty to go around.
A Los Angeles Police Department detective on loan to the Nightmute force to investigate a particularly disturbing homicide, Dormer (masterfully played by Al Pacino) will be disoriented by more than the midnight sun in “Insomnia.” This taut and intelligent psychological thriller, a kind of white nights film noir, investigates moral ambiguity as well as bad behavior, illuminating the risks even decent people run of losing their way in the dense thickets of crime.
As both his earlier films, the less-seen “Following” and the indie powerhouse “Memento,” demonstrated, director Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker at home with dislocation and dissociation. “Insomnia” shows an equally welcome ability: a gift of creating intelligent, engrossing popular entertainment.
This is a skill Nolan shares with one of “Insomnia’s” executive producers, Steven Soderbergh, who recognized a kindred spirit in Nolan and supported him on the project. Having a director this thoughtful doing genre material results in considerably more texture than usual, in a film that understands how immorality can ooze into goodness like a drop of blood seeping into a white shirt.
Although smartly written by Hillary Seitz in a promising debut, “Insomnia’s” origins go further back, to an excellent 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name directed and co-written by Erik Skjoldbjaerg and starring Stellan Skarsgard in the Pacino role. Seitz’s script sticks closely to the original, but Nolan has had no trouble using a variety of skills to make the material his own.
Working with his “Memento” collaborators cinematographer Wally Pfister and editor Dody Dorn, and shooting largely in British Columbia, Nolan once again displays an unmistakable visual confidence and a feeling for bravura moments like a nerve-wracking chase across a slippery logjam floating down a frigid river.
As he showed with Guy Pearce in “Memento,” Nolan is also adept at working with actors, and the beneficiaries this time are not only Pacino, but also co-stars Robin Williams and Hilary Swank, all of whom profit from the director’s ability to elicit reined-in performances. No one benefits from this tight control more than the veteran Pacino, who owns the film from the first moment we see Det. Dormer flying into Nightmute with his LAPD partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), and looking as drained and bloodless as the crime scene photos of murdered 17-year-old Kay Connell he holds on his lap.
An actor who’s been around and looks it (and who was playing cops as far back as 1973’s “Serpico”), Pacino was a natural choice for one of those bleak veteran detectives who’s next door to a legend in law-enforcement circles. Dormer may look tired, he may actually be tired, but he remains a watchful hawk, patiently waiting for the opportunity to strike.
Dormer and his partner are not really in Nightmute as a friendly gesture from a large city chief to a small one. They’re in town in part for a respite from an Internal Affairs probe of their conduct back home. Dormer, especially, is worried and agitated that his reputation, his very life’s work, will be destroyed by those he thinks “suck the marrow out of real cops.”
If Dormer and company represent experience, Swank’s Det. Ellie Burr is all innocence and enthusiasm as the youngest member of the Nightmute force, someone who actually studied Dormer’s cases in the academy. While Swank’s performance inevitably opens on a gee-whiz note, it toughens and gets more heft as the case takes increasingly serious turns.
It doesn’t take Dormer long to establish that Kay was murdered by someone who knew her well, someone who took enormous trouble and care to groom the corpse he’d savagely beaten to death. “This guy, he crossed a line,” Dormer says, “and he didn’t even blink.”
But despite this insight, Dormer finds the case uncommonly difficult. An unexpected crisis causes his situation to unravel, and the 24-hour sun, which makes sleep impossible, starts to prey on his mind. More and more, Dormer feels trapped by the unceasing light, unable to escape from its punishing, insidious brightness.
Adding to his difficulties are a series of taunting late-night phone calls from a voice we immediately recognize as Robin Williams’. The detective immediately focuses on his character, Walter Finch, as the main suspect. Finch, it turns out, is an especially clever man, eager to engage Dormer in elaborate mind games, trying to make him somehow complicit in a growing moral darkness that threatens to envelop the entire case.
For Williams, Walter Finch is one of a trio of dark roles (starting with “Death to Smoochy” and ending with the forthcoming “One Hour Photo”), and it is the most effective of the lot. It’s also perhaps the most compelling of the actors’ non-comic performances, noticeable for the way the character’s unflappable calmness leads to greater and greater complexity.
It is also unusual to see Pacino this outwardly calm, but his restraint has a formidable power. This is an actor especially suited to playing a man who knows all the moves, who has no trouble allowing us to feel the weight of experience on his soul. By not going over the top, Pacino allows us to intuit the strength behind the anguished, haunted mask, reminding us why he was such a compelling actor in the first place.
Holding all this together without apparent effort is director Nolan, who revels in the intricate push-pull relationship between detective and suspect that is at “Insomnia’s” core. As “The Asphalt Jungle” famously considered crime merely a left-handed form of human endeavor, this film explores the nature of truth, how cops and criminals can appear to be two sides of the same coin, how difficult it can be to know what to reveal and when to reveal it. As Dormer says to Ellie, “People give themselves away in small lies, small mistakes. It’s just human nature.”
MPAA rating: R, for language, some violence and brief nudity. Times guidelines: The violence is brief but vivid, including particularly disturbing scenes involving young victims.
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 Nyback
Alcorn Entertainment presents a Witt/Thomas Section Eight production, released by Warner Bros. Director Christopher Nolan. Producers Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove. Executive producers George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, Tony Thomas, Kim Roth, Charles J.D. Schlissel. Screenplay by Hillary Seitz, based on the film “Insomnia,” written by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg. Cinematographer Wally Pfister. Editor Dody Dorn. Costume designer Tish Monaghan. Music David Julyan. Production designer Nathan Crowley. Art director Michael Diner. Set decorator Peter Lando. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.