While it may not be as stylistically idiosyncratic as “Memento,” “Insomnia” is a gripping, highly dramatic thriller that more than confirms the distinctive talent of young Brit helmer Christopher Nolan. Working from an edgy 1997 Norwegian sleeper hit of the same name, Nolan and scenarist Hillary Seitz have fashioned a probing psychological study of a flawed cop that has stimulated Al Pacino to his best performance in many years. Beautifully filmed on striking British Columbian locations (subbing for Alaska during summer’s midnight sun), this precision-tooled suspenser looms as a solid summer performer for Warner Bros.
Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s original film, a fest discovery and specialized-release fave five years ago, featured Stellan Skarsgard as a seasoned Swedish homicide detective called to a small town in Norway to help solve a vexing case involving the murder of a high school girl. Among pic’s key components were the focus on the cop’s clever use of devious means to produce the desired end, the imposition of big city ways on the more relaxed manner of the village locals, and the perpetual bright sky of the far north that pushed its protagonist beyond mere sleep deprivation to hallucinatory levels of physical and spiritual fatigue.
All of these elements have been preserved in this first-produced screenplay by Seitz, who has faithfully followed the dramatic line of the previous film’s first half, significantly elaborated the second, and deepened the emotional and moral inquiry wherever possible. Only in one important case of casting and performance does the picture fall short of full realization.
Happy for a brief reprieve from the prying eyes of an internal affairs investigation on his L.A. home turf, star cop Will Dormer (Pacino) arrives by seaplane, along with partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), at the exquisitely situated burg of Nightmute. There, he’s greeted with unabashed admiration by local officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who has studied her idol’s cases in school.
Dormer has been called in because the small-towners are stumped by the killer’s fastidiousness; whoever murdered the 17-year-old Kate carefully washed her hair, clipped her nails and otherwise made sure to leave behind no traces. What the locals consider stumbling blocks, however, Dormer views as clues in themselves, and he skillfully sets a trap for the killer to lure him to the remote cabin where the body was found.
The ruse works and, but for a blunder by a backup cop, Dormer would have had his man. But in the ensuing chase, the presumed murderer vanishes across slippery rocks into the thick fog, which leads Dormer to take an ill-advised shot that ends up killing his partner, with whom he’s recently had a hot argument. Dormer’s quick-thinking and trickery convinces the other cops that the hunted man actually nailed Eckhart, which frees him to pursue the case through more laborious means, but also leaves him burdened with terrible guilt.
Even at this early stage, the modest changes wrought on the original enrich the remake; the character of the partner in the earlier version was an older man; making him younger, with wife and kids whom Dormer knows well, significantly ratchets up the emotional impact of his death on Dormer and the audience. Nolan’s attention to detail and intense skill with actors are apparent even in the fleeting performance of the unseen actress (Kerry Sandomirsky) who superbly gives voice to Eckhart’s wife as she learns over the phone from Dormer that she’s now a widow.
Although the Nightmute police think they have a good suspect in Kate’s arrogant boyfriend, Dormer figures differently, certain that Kate visited a secret “admirer” after partying with friends on the night of the murder. Repeated phone messages from a man who claims he saw Dormer shoot Eckhart and insists that, “We’re partners in this,” confirm Dormer’s suspicions, and he’s soon able to figure out who the killer is and where he lives.
It’s giving away nothing to reveal that the culprit is Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a mystery writer Kate befriended. After surviving a frantic chase highlighted by a brilliantly rendered sense of suffocation when Dormer is trapped underwater beneath some enormous floating logs, the detective agrees to a meeting on a ferry, where Finch launches the mind games that mount between the two men. Shrewd and well-versed in the ways of the criminal mind, Finch uses what he knows of Dormer’s troubles to suggest they can help one another, while all Dormer cares about is putting this creep away.
Their initial encounter, which occurs at the beginning of pic’s second half, is admirably performed sotto voce, and at key moments, Nolan wisely lets the camera just sit and record long exchanges in a single take.
Script takes advantage of Dormer’s moral predicament and Finch’s tight squeeze to explore the psychological ambiguity of the men’s mutual involvement. But while Finch never achieves the stature of a truly memorable villain, Dormer’s tragic complexity, stemming from his time-tested ability to “know” when someone is guilty, places the character at least in the same ballpark with Orson Welles’ memorable portrait of the brilliant corrupt cop Hank Quinlan in “Touch of Evil.”
Just when the prospect of seeing Pacino play yet another cop might not seem that exciting, he delivers an exceptionally textured performance that quietly reveals the character’s ample talents while drawing upon unexpected resources of emotional truth. The process of prolonged sleep deprivation — initially treated rather comically as Dormer is unable to keep the light from streaming into his hotel room but finally pushing him to dementia — serves as a wonderful device by which the character’s essence is finally illuminated.
This is the third film in a row, after the Sundance entry “One Hour Photo” and the recent flop “Death to Smoochy,” in which Williams has played a bad guy, and while the act may be interesting the first time you see it, it’s revealed as a one-dimensional stunt upon repeated exposure.
This time playing an emotionally pinched loner with a hair-trigger temper, Williams consistently uses a calmly clenched demeanor to express repressed evil, in the evident conviction that underplaying will pay dramatic dividends. But the necessary emotional and psychic turbulence fails to come through, and the lack of a genuinely insinuating and imposing dramatic actor to balance Pacino is the only thing holding the picture back.
Playing a “normal” modern woman for a change, Swank adroitly registers the swing of Ellie’s regard for Dormer once she begins suspecting what he’s up to. Donovan works well with Pacino in giving life to the partners’ complicated feelings for one another during his brief screen time, and Maura Tierney’s role as the operator of the lodge where Dormer stays keeps threatening to become more than it does.
Wally Pfister’s muscular widescreen lensing makes the most of the magnificent locations, Dody Dorn’s editing is unobtrusively lean, and David Julyan’s music supports the story with turbulent inflections.