review by Elias Savada, 24 May 2002
Noble Nail Biter
Christopher Nolan's first
mainstream Hollywood production, following on his phenomenally
successfully, time/mind-bending Memento
and its intriguing featurette precursor Following,
is an inspired, albeit (purposedly) glacially paced adaptation of
Scandinavian filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjaerg's debut feature—also
wowed audiences at Cannes a few years back. Simply put: wow redux.
As expected, Nolan exposes a solid handle on a fairly linear
(finally) thriller, so audiences will not need as much brainpower
that they bookmarked for Memento
to enjoy this novel murder mystery. It's one heck of an absorbing,
haunting piece, even occasionally grizzly, that mesmerizes with its
taunt story and masterful performances by three Academy Award
winning actors. You get acting in spades.
Moving the locale from Northern
Norway to a small Alaskan town named Night Mute, the cast is
similarly Americanized, featuring Al Pacino as veteran L.A.
detective Will Dormer, subtly forced to handle a murder case far off
his home turf. Accompanied by his younger partner Hap Eckhart
(Martin Donovan), they alight at a civilization's-end encampment
protected by Chief Nyback (Paul Dooley), an old acquaintance of
Will's, in need of a city cop's expertise in unearthing the killer
of a local teenager. The hard-nosed cop immediately finds his world
out of kilter by the constant sunlight, mistaking 10 P.M. for 10
A.M. In the course of his week's stay, he suffers night after night
of sleeplessness, his body and mind unable to adjust to the bright
environment. This, more than the rest of the plotting, is what
stretches the film's pacing, as Nolan is determined to show us
Dormer's ever-drooping eyes, increasingly grubby demeanor, and
blood-drained face as he battles the mind-numbing elements beyond
his psychological control. (Too bad he didn't pray for rain.)
Whereas the original film merely
plops a sexually-repressed Swedish cop (Stellan Skarsgård) in a
cultural outpost off Norway's beaten path, Dormer's baggage is
emptied of most of the Scandinavian version's sexual underpinnings
in favor of a semi-moral, occupational turpitude involving some
previous, less-than-honorable police work. This also changes the
entire relationship between the partners and adds another
psychological level that mires the standout cop in an ever-spiraling
tailspin of depression, regret, and doubt.
For Pacino, no slouch in any role,
particularly that of a law officer (Serpico,
Heat, Sea of Love), it's terribly exciting to watch him play against
expectation and out of water. He's this summer's Denzel Washington;
perhaps not as ugly, but certainly wart-worthy. As a widely
respected sleuth, his strong-willed character is caught with his
hand in a deadly cookie jar, wherein Insomnia
becomes submerged in a battle of withering wits. Where cat and mouse
play role-reversal mind games. The mouse is quite mighty, and
cunning—a reclusive local author named Walter Finch—an extremely
focused, budding sociopath marvelously molded all the more
malevolent in the capable hands of Robin Williams. He sheds ALL
comic pretensions as a cold-blooded rodent completely capable of
eluding the traps Dormer sets for him, of turning the tables on a
pursuer who spilled a secret to someone who definitely knows how to
put it to his best advantage.
In upgrading Williams' character
for American audiences, he has become a clever, coldly calculating
manipulator. And, yes, Hilary Swank is also top-billed (and her role
likewise expanded, but barely enough). She gives a strong showing as
a observant local cop, Ellie Burr, a by-the-book student of human
nature whose role model has just arrived in town.
But God bless Al Pacino, whose
dogged-day iron Will rusts with each advancing minute, the crazy
light hopelessly over-sensitizing his sense of hearing, before
summoning up one last street cop's intuition.
First-time screenwriter Hillary
Seitz certainly does a yeowoman's job in cleaning up some of the
motivations missing from the original, expanding the film's scope
and impulses. Nolan connects all the emotional dots, pushes his cast
to stellar effect, and then offers up some stunning set pieces. A
stakeout gone awry in a jagged, fog-covered beach, where audience
and cops are all straining for a point of focus, is exceedingly
tense. While this was more than effectively borrowed from the
original version, Insomnia
American-style adds a breathtaking pursuit across a swiftly moving
logjam, the timber becoming a thunderous obstacle to prey…and life.
is a noble nail-biter, a killer thriller than shows us that the fine
battle lines between trusted cop and conniving criminal can be
shaken and blurred…and thoroughly enjoyed.
R - Restricted.
No one under 17
admitted without parent
or adult guardian.