Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank
Written by Hilary Seitz
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan makes damn fine films. Sure, they can be flawed, but they're always highly engrossing and entertaining films. 2002's "Insomnia" is no exception.
In the small fishing community of Nightmute, Alaska, a teenage girl is found murdered. Los Angeles Police Detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) arrive to assist the local police in their investigation. They're partnered with young, enthusiastic detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). At dinner, Hap reveals to Dormer that he's been offered an immunity deal by Internal Investigations in LA, who are looking into one of Dormer's old cases.
The next day, while chasing their suspect, Dormer shoots and kills Hap in a dense fog. Dormer claims it was the suspect he was chasing that shot Hap, and Ellie is pulled off the dead girl's case and assigned Hap's killing. Dormer continues to look into the girl's murder, but in the town of Nightmute, the sun never goes down. Dormer finds that he can't sleep, and the 24-hour sunlight begins to mess with his head. Soon after, he begins receiving phone calls from Finch (Robin Williams) a local crime author who claims that killing the girl was an accident. He knows Dormer killed Hap, and begins to lay the seeds of blackmail to make sure that both he and Dormer come out of the investigation clean.
With Ellie closing in on the truth from one end, and Finch closing in on the other, Dormer struggles to figure out how to make everything right. But his mind is slipping as insomnia takes its toll, the days drag on and he still can't sleep.
"Insomnia" takes a fairly standard police procedural setup and injects a great twist into it by setting it in a town where the sun never goes down. The Alaskan setting is gorgeous, allowing for lots of really beautiful photography, but that beauty also feels quite dangerous at times. It also allows the filmmakers to construct some really intriguing situations that you don't see in your typical detective stories set in New York or Los Angeles. The foggy chase sequence is great, as is another chase later where Finch tries to lose Dormer by running over logs floating over water.
Pacino is great as Detective Dormer, nailing the sort of half-dead, twitchy state that comes with not sleeping for days. A few times we get to see how his mind wanders as he drives in his car and suddenly can't focus on the road, but only on the windshield wipers. Or when the lights come on in his hotel room, and the light, which should be normal, is intense and blinding. He also sells his confusion over what really happened to Hap. The question remains through the entire film, Why can't Dormer sleep? Is it the sun, or is it his conscience?
Robin Williams puts in a fine dramatic performance, as well. Finch is a character that is absolutely committed to his innocence, even though he's also committed to the fact that he did indeed murder that girl. The way he manages to get the upper hand over Dormer implies an intelligence beyond what Dormer is willing to give him credit for, and at times he even seems to enjoy what's going on. But make no mistake: this man is dangerous. The only problem is that Williams gets limited screen time, mostly only appearing in the second half of the film. It makes the film feel slightly lop-sided, since Finch figures so heavily in the story.
Hilary Swank is also fine, but her character isn't explored much. We get some of her backstory, and her obvious hero worship of Dormer can be frown-worthy at times. Still, she does what she can with a role that seems designed less as a character and more of an obstacle for Dormer.
"Insomnia" is a fascinating and engaging thriller. Christopher Nolan's sure direction and good performances from Pacino and Williams make it a winner. While Nolan would go on to reach greater and greater heights, he shows no less talent here for creating top-notch entertainment.