Insomnia Movie Review
After a hit as inventive and novel as last year's narrative-bending "Memento," following up with a remake of something as commonplace as a cop vs. killer cat-and-mouser might seem a step down for director Christopher Nolan. But "Insomnia" was an unusual story before he even got his hands on it.
The 1997 original from Norway starred Stellan Skarsgaard ("The Glass House," "Good Will Hunting") as a detective whose ongoing sleep disorder became a psychological burden while investigating the cryptic murder of a teenage girl above the Arctic Circle, during summer when the sun is up 24 hours a day.
In Nolan's remake, Al Pacino plays the cop as a graying, threadbare detective with still-sharp instincts who has been given an extra bag of metaphorical bricks to carry around: He's in Alaska helping with this murder case until the heat of an ugly Internal Affairs inquiry dies down in his native Los Angeles.
It takes him little time to lay a trap for the killer, a pulp mystery novelist, played with eerie, meticulous reserve by Robin Williams, who both mentored and obsessed over his pretty young victim. But the fact that Pacino can't get a wink of sleep begins to degenerate his sleuthing abilities and Williams knows it. When the trap is blown, a chase ensues through the mountain fog, resulting in a lethal case of mistaken identity that the cop decides to cover up to save himself more Internal Affairs woes. But the killer witnessed the accident and uses blackmail to turn the table on his adversary.
While "Insomnia" is in many ways a conventional, sometimes contrived, and even predictable Hollywood remake, Nolan's penetrating yet subtle undercurrent of cerebral and cinematic flair lend his version of the film a stimulating depth. In the title sequence alone he gives the audience a subliminal sense of the fatigue that plagues his hero while capturing the remoteness and beauty of the location with a panoramic shot from Pacino's airplane seat as an endless field of craggy blue-white glaciers fade in and out of focus from his drowsy point of view.
The two main characters are remarkably well-drawn by first-time screenwriter Hillary Seitz and brilliantly personified by Pacino and by Williams who is a revelation in what may the best, most nuanced performance of his career. Playing a man whose nagging psychoses lie deep below an utterly ordinary, unassuming exterior, Williams absolutely disappears inside his character, who realizes his knowledge of forensics and investigative technique can keep him one step ahead of Pacino -- if only because his sleepless adversary is not operating at 100 percent.
Pacino is even better, portraying his character's casual, inborn precognition and determination as a detective while fully embodying the fatigue that's practically killing him. He can't seem to get any shut-eye, even after taping his hotel room shades closed in a failed attempt to keep out the midnight sun.
When these two actors share scenes, pushing each other's buttons over the killings they both claim were accidental, "Insomnia" borders on becoming Oscar-worthy. Nolan employs Seitz's vivid (if not memorable) dialogue to peel away layers of these characters, which are more complex than in the Norwegian original. "You think there's been others?" a local cop asks Pacino as they examine the girl's body. "No but there's gonna be," he replies. "This guy crossed the line and he didn't even blink."
The remake has crafty additional twists as well, and Nolan adds details that make it seem all the more authentic while including an element of redemption that didn't exist in the very strong but considerably gloomier '97 film.
Aside from a few too-convenient revelations that betray Hollywood artifice, the picture's only significant weakness is the wide-eyed local deputy, played by Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry"), who is preposterously in awe of Pacino's "legendary" detective. But over-written as her part may be, Swank rises to the occasion when assigned to do a rubber-stamp investigation of the shooting of Pacino's partner. She's smart enough to realize something is fishy, and wondering what will happen when she puts two and two together is a major source of tension in the film.
"A good cop can't sleep because a piece of the puzzle is missing," she tells Pacino. "A bad cop can't sleep because his conscience is bothering him."