Insomnia shows the result of when good scripts happen to great actors. Al Pacino has been coasting since winning his undeserved Oscar for Scent of a Woman a decade ago, and Robin Williams has made nothing but crap since he won an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting five years later.
They must have gotten a wake-up call. Pacino's back at the top of his form in this improved version of the American remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller. Williams' fans may be disappointed at not seeing him in the first hour of the picture. Hearing his voice 10 minutes earlier won't make much difference to them, but getting caught up in a gripping story may.
Pacino plays Will Dormer (the name suggests the verb "to sleep" in the Romance languages), a legendary LAPD detective who arrives in a sleepy Alaska town with his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), to assist in a murder investigation. Nothing like this has happened before in Nightmute, "the halibut fishing capital of the world."
Dormer's reputation precedes him. He's idolized by young Detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who wrote her thesis on one of his cases.
The heat is on in LA at the moment, with Internal Affairs investigating Dormer and Eckhart's division. Eckhart is about to cut a deal to avoid prison, and Dormer is afraid of being caught in the resulting house of cards. This has put a rift in their friendship.
Ellie reminds Dormer he once said, "When a good cop can't sleep it's because there's a piece of the puzzle missing. When a bad cop can't sleep it's because his conscience won't let him." Dormer has a third reason for insomnia: it's the season when the sun never sets in this part of Alaska, and he's not used to sleeping in broad daylight. (You'd think the lodge run by Maura Tierney would be equipped with curtains that do a better job of blocking the light.)
The case at hand involves the murder of a 17-year-old girl who quarreled with her boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson in full Alaskan Gothic) before she was killed but also had a secret admirer who bought her expensive gifts.
If you're already planning to see Insomnia you need read no further. Knowing what's going to happen won't ruin your appreciation of how it plays out, but a few surprises could add to your pleasure. If you don't mind spoilers and need more persuading, read on.
Pursuing a suspect in the fog Dormer shoots Eckhart by mistake. Or is it a mistake? That's one of the questions that haunt him. The girl's murderer, Walter Finch (Williams), sees the shooting and uses it to force Dormer to work with him in covering up each other's killings. What follows is an elaborate cat-and-mouse game where you're not always sure who is the cat and who the mouse.
Williams is so smooth as a "distorted, pathetic freak" we not only wonder if Finch's self-justification has Dormer convinced, we sometimes wonder if he has us convinced.
Director Christopher Nolan moves effortlessly from the mini-budgeted Memento to his first studio picture. Lacking the novel situation of memory loss to convey, he does a fine job with the more common agitated state, using flash cuts that recur throughout but don't make sense to us until the end.
Loose ends are all tied up at the conclusion of Insomnia so you won't lose sleep trying to figure it out, but it will leave you with pleasant if unsettling memories during your waking hours.
VIDEO TIP: If you like "Insomnia" rent "The Pledge," which flew under the radar in its release last year. It's cut from similar cloth.