Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hillary Swank
Notes for Parents: Although “Insomnia” has only a few moments of violence, its themes and intellectual suspense make it inappropriate for younger teens.
There’s a moment in “Insomnia” when Detective Dormer, Al Pacino’s character, makes a decision that will change everything in his life. We don’t see him make that decision, but we see its aftermath. “Insomnia” is full of moments like that, unseen forks of the road that a person chooses between in a moment, and then has to deal with forever.
As a successor to Nolan’s previous film, “Memento”, “Insomnia” is very effective. It has plenty of mental twists and turns, and although it doesn’t surprise us at the end the way “Memento” did, the ride is a lot of fun. The story is a retelling of Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s 1997 film of the same title: a brilliant detective is sent to Nightmute, Alaska, a sleepy town so far North that at this time of year the sun doesn’t ever set. In the process of solving a heinous crime he finds himself tangled in something far more sinister than the mystery he has to solve and hampered by his inability to sleep without the darkness he’s used to.
The killer is wonderfully underplayed by Robin Williams. Nolan ropes in Williams’ tendency to ham for the cameras, and the resulting performance is wonderfully low-key. The killer’s terrible calm is far more unnerving than an over-the-top psycho performance would have been, and the dischord between his rationality and the brutality of his crime is wonderfully unsettling.
Pacino is likewise reined in, except for a few memorable scenes when he comes close to gnawing scenery. As the ironically-named Dormer goes longer and longer without sleep, he gets more and more worn down, both physically and mentally. It’s nice to see an actor unafraid of looking like he hasn’t slept in three or four days. By the end of the film, Dormer is hallucinating and Pacino lets us see the desperation in the man’s eyes.
Parts of the film are incredibly predictable, but for the right type of person the journey from A to B is enjoyable even if he or she knows what B is going to be. “Insomnia” is for that kind of person. We know what is going to happen, with the inevitability of watching a train wreck. What we don’t know are the details; for example, when young detective Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank) is revealed to practically worship Dormer, we know he will be revealed to have feet of clay. It’s merely the mechanics that are left for us to guess.
The moral questions the film asks are old ones, but by the end of the film they are as confused for Dormer as the Alaskan night and day. The relentless light of the sun makes it very difficult for him to tell the two apart, just as his inability to sleep makes it harder and harder for him to think clearly and choose wisely. He’s used to a demarcation between good and evil, night and day, but in Nightmute, both boundaries are blurred.
Overall, “Insomnia” is a solid film noir tale, even if it’s more blanc than noir with Alaska’s never-ending daylight. It’s low on violence and high on mental tension, and if it’s a bit heavy-handed with its moral point at times, watching the twists and turns of the plot and the fine-tuned central performances is an intellectual joy.