Detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan, "Trust") have come to the small town of Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the murder of a teenage girl with the help of a young, enthusiastic young local detective (Hilary Swank). Dormer is a troubled cop, haunted by an impending internal affairs investigation and the ceaseless sunlight of his new surroundings. After a brutal accident that leaves Hap dead, Dormer goes forward with his investigation, eventually finding his way to the killer, the eerily calm Walter Finch (Robin Williams). As deranged as Finch is, he provides a voice of reason for Dormer as well as an opportunity to cleanse his sins and escape his past.
Of course, all eyes are on "Insomnia" (IMDb listing), as it is director Christopher Nolan¹s follow-up to his beloved hit film "Memento." "Insomnia" (actually a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film) shares most of the same bells and whistles as the mind-bending backwards thriller from last year: the random, yet intricate jump cutting, the labyrinthine sound design (which rivals a David Lynch or Dario Argento picture in terms of intensity), and a lead character who doesn¹t know if he's coming or going. It also shares one flaw that kept me from true immersion in "Memento," and that is Nolan's tendency to get lost in his own style. Here is the rare filmmaker who takes the time to establish atmosphere, and I shouldn't be complaining, but occasionally, "Insomnia" comes to a complete stop because Nolan is taking his eyes off the prize. He takes great pains to replicate Dormer's state of mind and the twisted nature of Finch's murder, and it plays well for most of the film. At times, though, as in "Memento," Nolan's focus is too severe, leading to limp moments in the narrative. "Insomnia" is gripping, involving material, but it doesn't reach as many edge-of-your-seat moments as it should because Nolan isn't interested in reaching those heights. "Insomnia" isn't your typical thriller, though at times it clearly heads that way.
But Nolan's lack of equilibrium in the film's style doesn't take away from his accomplishment. As follow-up movies go, this is one of the better ones. Nolan has complete control of the picture, trusting his eye to capture all the little details of the crime and the Nightmute landscape that it almost made me cry. The Alaskan vistas are incredible in "Insomnia" (brought to life with stunning work from cinematographer Wally Pfister, who also shot "Memento"), taking full advantage of the infrequent chance to film a picture outside of L.A. or New York. The landscape of glaciers, the green moss in the wet beach rocks, the trickle of blood soaking into a white dress shirt, and thick fog that obscures a terrible accident. The details are what make "Insomnia" stand out from the competition, and Nolan has the eye to bring this world to life without resorting to too many tricks that we've seen before.
The cast of "Insomnia" is also uniformly perfect. Touting three, count em three, Academy Award-winning actors, how could the film go wrong? Robin Williams makes for an ominous psychopath, and Hilary Swank continues to show incredible range here as a mousy young detective. But the big kahuna is Pacino, and his fans won't be disappointed. This is Pacino doing his normal routine, which involves a lot of swagger and bursts of pure aggression. It's a fine performance, but one that is often not reeled in enough to stop what eventually crumbles the character, and that's Pacino's tendency to overcompensate with wild vocal eruptions and odd quirks (though he deserves credit for accurately selling Dormer's state of sleeplessness). I adore his level of concentration (also seen in the typical Tom Cruise or Antonio Banderas performance), but Pacino only has a fingertip grip on his character, and I often couldn't understand Dormer's motivations from scene to scene. This is what also killed Pacino's acting in "Scent Of A Woman" as well. The acting legend needs a director who will say "no" to him more often, but honestly, I can't blame Nolan for his lack of interfering. Who would want to tell Al Pacino to take it down a notch?
"Insomnia" is far from perfect, and I would hardly call it a rousing corker of a thriller, but Nolan has inventive ideas in approaching this project, and the end result is definitely worth the time spent. It's rare to come across a film that can create the palpable level of dread that was last seen in David Fincher's "Seven." Even with its faults, "Insomnia" is still heads and tails above the competition.
Filmfodder Grade: B+