Archive for Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Thriller ‘Insomnia’ won’t put you to sleep

(R) ***1/2

May 22, 2002

"Insomnia" may be the first gritty crime drama to take place completely during daylight. Of course, that's because it's set in Alaska during the prolonged season when night never comes.

This condition proves somewhat of a nuisance for Will Dormer (Al Pacino). An honored LAPD detective, Dormer and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) are sent to the tiny Alaskan town of Nightmute to help investigate the slaying of a local girl. The two welcome the chance to get far away from home because Internal Affairs is hounding them about possible evidence tampering that could jeopardize past cases and their careers.

Almost immediately the "midnight sun" starts to affect Dormer (ironically, his very name means "to sleep" in French). But it doesn't hinder his resolve to hunt down a murderer who has "crossed the line and didn't even blink."

Aided by an enthusiastic local officer (Hilary Swank) mainly used to dealing with "drinking-related problems, domestic abuse and bar fights," the team lays a trap for the elusive culprit. When the plan goes horribly wrong, the killer witnesses something that implicates the detective. This information eventually compels the men to conspire. But are Dormer and his adversary (a meekly insidious Robin Williams) really in collusion, or are they both trying to set up each other.

Christopher Nolan, the writer/director behind last year's brilliant "Memento," doesn't disappoint with his follow-up effort. Not as cinematically tricky nor as psychologically ambiguous as his previous picture, "Insomnia" is just as intriguing in its own linear way. Nolan (and first-time screenwriter Hillary Seitz) adapt the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, but make it more of a moral treatise than a "big cops come to small town" thriller.

"Insomnia" isn't the first movie this year to portray the cat-and-mouse tactics between homicide detectives and those allegedly guilty of a crime. "Murder By Numbers" built an entire story around a similar dynamic. But the Pacino and Williams relationship is one of the more unconventional of this type ever put on screen. Both men share a particular secret that forces their dependence on each other or necessitates the other's elimination.

The film offers a key to unlocking a critical event from one of the men's past during a unique title sequence that repeats two beautifully vague images. One is the view from a plane going over glacial structures; the other is an extreme closeup of blood soaking onto clothing fibers.

At the heart of the unhurried tale is a rich, complex performance by Pacino, justifying why the actor is among the best when playing someone wrestling with ethical confliction. With his already sleepy eyes, Pacino is able to project a burned-out emotional state while keeping the guise of professionalism necessary to running a criminal investigation.

Nolan often shoots scenes from Pacino's sleep-deprived viewpoint, where even the most mundane sound (a coffee maker, a fan, a stapler) becomes a booming distraction. Much attention is paid to the character's obsession with light leaking from a window in his hotel room. At a crucial part of the movie, Pacino races toward a location but becomes hypnotized by his car's windshield wipers. "Insomnia" may have the only cinematic climax where the principle character nearly falls asleep during a shoot-out.

Williams is also memorable. There's always been something innately creepy about the comedian-turned-actor. And his first utterly villainous role functions as the antithesis of the "Patch Adams"-style sentimentality that his career seemed to be veering toward. (This is his second of three edgier parts in 2002, including "Death to Smoochy" and the upcoming "One Hour Photo.") Williams wisely chooses to underplay the murderer. Like most evil men, he doesn't regard himself as evil.

Conversely, Swank is saddled with the most underwritten role. Described by her colleagues as "Nancy Drew," she seems outmatched in the personality department by her co-stars despite being a pivotal player to the plot. This is really the film's only palpable flaw. It's all the more frustrating considering how talented Swank proved with her Oscar showcase in "Boys Don't Cry."

While "Insomnia" doesn't quite reinvent the structure of filmmaking like "Memento," it does bring a fresh dimension to a familiar setup. The talented Nolan won't need to lose any sleep over whether he lived up to expectations.

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