Director Christopher Nolan
Screenplay Hillary Seitz based on Insomnia by Nikolaj Frobenius, Erik Skjoldbjærg
Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Paul Dooley
Insomnia is one of those films I watched once, then bought, only to never watch it again. Years later, I am glad I took the opportunity to enjoy this film one more time. Nolan’s films have become such events, it seemed kind of strange to go back and watch anything not Dark Knight forward. It is taken for granted that the films are good, it just never is a priority.
Part of the challenge is the fact that the film is a remake of another well regarded film our of Norway. Since Nolan and his brother didn’t write it, it seems less relevant. It should not be considered anything less than excellent for many reasons.
The story is about the investigation of the murder of teenager Kay Connell, in the north Alaska town of Nightmute. Two Los Angeles police detectives fly in at the request of police chief Nyback (Dooley). The senior investigator, Will Dormer (Pacino) is the hero of local detective Ellie Burr, who studied his work in college. His partner, Eckhart (Donovan) has just informed Dormer that he is striking a deal with investigators over an Internal Affairs investigation, which puts Dormer and all of his work under close scrutiny and will possibly release several people he had arrested.
Early on in the investigation, an accident claims Donovan’s life. Katie’s killer is the witness and immediately takes advantage of Dormer. From here, the movie becomes a mixture of cat and mouse on multiple fronts.
The first reason this film is a gem is Robin Williams. His performance here is his best (along with One Hour Photo) of his post Good Will Hunting career. It’s truly a brave turn for the Oscar winner to make himself into such a pathetic, yet menacing, antagonist. He is the definition of the forgettable background menace. He describes his actions as beyond his control as he carefully works to control every single event through the series. He is an incredible force of malevolence as it is clear he detests what he has become, even if he has to protect his existence.
Reason number two is Al Pacino. This may be one of his best portrayals. He’s done a lot of crap through the latter half of his career, and he’s phoned in a ton of performances. This is because his talent is such that he can get away with this. Here we see the full menu. He is intensely committed and more than a little arrogant at first. The betrayal by his partner really knocks him back, and he acts ungracefully. His behavior after Eckhart’s demise is incredible. He is losing sleep, remorseful and angling to protect his legacy and his freedom. It’s as layered a performance as I have seen since Dog Day Afternoon.
This film gives us Hilary Swank right in the sweet spot of her career. It’s hard to believe how good she is, because she’s good in everything. She’s beautiful: her intelligence and diligence shine brightly. She only has to be enthusiastic, but she piles much more into her role, becoming every young detective that one can imagine aging well, as compared to her hero.
Christopher Nolan is in cruise control with his direction here. The story is told technically with a very crisp attention to detail. This is not a challenging film for him, it’s told in a straightforward fashion with most of the mind tricks being saved for Dormer’s character. He doesn’t need to do much, but it would have been nice if there had been a way to keep the murderer’s guilt from being revealed until the last quarter of the film. But then, the performance demands its reveal.
Credit this to Nolan, he knows how to make fantastic sites seem normal and he knows how to turn actors into full fleshed people. He’s one of the best directors around for a reason.
So if you haven’t watched Insomnia for a while, or even if you’ve never watched it, take the opportunity. It’s anything but wasted time. It’s excellent filmmaking.
(**** out of *****)