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Insomnia   A-

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Hillary Seitz (based on a screenplay by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg)
Cast: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Martin Donovan, Maura Tierney, Jonathan Jackson.

Review by Rob Vaux

So much for poor follow-throughs. After creating a modern masterpiece in last year's Memento, director Christopher Nolan hits a second home run with Insomnia, another psychological thriller that delves deep into guilt and memory. It eschews Memento's formalistic time-swapping for a more conventional narrative thread -- a six-day murder investigation told relatively straight -- yet the results are eerily similar. Nolan has a knack for crawling inside his protagonists' heads, but rather than trying to top Memento's mind game, he strikes out in a completely new direction... with equally impressive results.

The fulcrum is a brutal slaying committed at the top of the world -- Nightmute, Alaska, where the sun never sets in the summer months. Insomnia does for sunshine what most noir thrillers do for shadows: it's everywhere. Cracks of it stab through the windowpanes, sheets of it steal into every opening. You step outside and you're smothered by it, you try to close your eyelids and it creeps through. It's no less consuming and no less bleak than any seamy cityscape... especially when we see it through the eyes of detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino), an LA detective who could use some of Leonard Shelby's forgetfulness. Dormer arrives in Nightmute -- along with his partner (Martin Donovan) -- fleeing a fearsome IA investigation back home. Their presence "assisting the local authorities" is actually just a chance to lay low, but Dormer can't banish the past that easily. The combination of lingering guilt and the relentless light soon drives him to sleeplessness: night after night of staring at the clock and listening to the demons chewing at his soul. Pacino plays Dormer with world-weary cynicism, a nominally good man rapidly losing track of the line between right and wrong. He's already tired when the film opens, and as it progresses, he slowly devolves into a shambling wreck.

His condition is uncomfortably similar to that of the killer he hunts: Walter Finch (Robin Williams, in an impressively restrained performance), a mystery writer who knows enough about police work to hide his tracks. Finch appears quietly, almost incidentally, and well after Dormer has begun his downward spiral. Contrary to assumption, Finch isn't psychotic; in his mind, he simply made a bad mistake, and he believes that Dormer is no different. Without revealing too much, Dormer's investigation soon hinges on practiced deceit -- hiding accidental incidents that would cook his goose with Internal Affairs. Only Finch knows the truth... and capturing him means uncovering Dormer's guilt as well.

This puzzle turns Insomnia's straight cops-and-robbers format upside down. The dilemma for Dormer isn't catching Finch, but disentangling himself from what Finch knows, a wicked bind that Nolan makes ruthless use of. Though based on an earlier Norwegian movie, Insomnia remains resolutely the director's. Like Memento, it relies on external visual cues to reveal its protagonist's inner state: from the pervasive whiteness to the disturbingly stark Alaskan vistas. At times, the footing itself seems uneasy: sequences shot over treacherous outcroppings of rock, a chase over waterborne logs, the craggy glaciers we swoop across during the opening credits. There's no safe place to put your feet. Nowhere to relax. Nowhere to let your guard down. The performances play well against these elements (both Pacino's and Williams', as well as Hilary Swank, whose eager-beaver local cop proves that her Oscar was no fluke), and Nolan knows how to evoke the proper imagery without mashing our faces in it. He even toys elegantly with that oldest symbol of foul play, the bloodstain that won't come clean; it's amusing to note that Dormer eventually unburdens his soul to an otherwise incidental hotel clerk played by Maura Tierney... whose last notable role was Lady Macbeth.

Insomnia has the surface bearing of a typical thriller, the sort Hollywood cranks out six a year. It's near brilliance comes in the way it makes use of its material, creating a picture that's anything but run-of-the-mill. In some ways, it's even better than its predecessor: Memento's premise was enough to distinguish it, while Insomnia lacks such a big head start. But strong filmmaking never stays hidden, and a strong filmmaker can bring out the best in any material. The inventiveness on display here suggests that Nolan has plenty more dark surprises in store for us -- and that's a prospect worth staying up for.

Review published 06.02.2002.

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