Insomnia
review by Gregory Avery, 24 May 2002

Can't Sleep

At the beginning of Christopher Nolan's new film Insomnia, Al Pacino's character, an L.A. police detective named Will Dormer, is seen furiously trying to scrub something out of the cuff of his sleeve. Flying over broken, ice-covered landscape, he is going to the town of Nightmute, Alaska to look into the beating death of a seventeen-year-old girl, and, after his arrival, he peers into people's faces and circles around them, trying to determine who's hiding something or what they may be up to, with all the confidence of a great matador sizing up a bull in a corrida. When he announces that he's ready to pay a first visit to the school the deceased girl attended, he's told, incredulously, "It's ten o-clock ... At night." Oh, right. This is Alaska, where it may be overcast and wet but it stays light a whole lot of the time, and the story proceeds to show how Dormer then goes on to get everything all wrong.

Dormer's inability to function without sleep is but one thing that causes him to slip up. He may be interested in getting at the truth (and he's not above scaring people to death in order to do so), and registers righteous indignation over the way the dead girl was treated, but he's also trying to selectively contain other things. Dormer's police partner, Hap Eckhart (played by the superb Martin Donovan), is being pressured to participate in an internal affairs investigation back in Los Angeles, something that may put Dormer himself directly into the line of questioning, and when he announces his decision, you can see something mean and hard deep down, like a metal line, surface within Dormer as he looks at Eckhart. Shortly thereafter, he makes a horrible mistake during the pursuit of a possible suspect, and proceeds to rearrange the evidence to deflect attention from himself. That's when he starts receiving tell-tale calls over the telephone from someone who seems to know his every move, where he is, even what he had been doing back down in California. The caller is one Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a smiling, soft-spoken writer who knew the murdered girl and proceeds to share with Dormer information about he made a mistake, in the past, that he could never take back and didn't make amends for. Now, they both share a secret and they both have the goods on each other, and they can't tell without getting themselves into trouble.

Williams, who plays his character with just the right touch of an outwardly convivial, soft-spoken, but earnest quality, is working without the hard-edged, and sometimes splenetic, quality that he brought to his earlier "serious" performance, which makes it more convincing when doubt is raised as to whether his character may really be guilty of anything at all: the story is being told from Dormer's point-of-view, and Finch may merely be a projection of his own increasing sense of desperation and anguish. Nolan, working from a screenplay adapted by Hillary Seitz from a 1997 Norwegian-made thriller, creates sequences which offer some of the most unnervingly accurate depictions of sensory dislocation I've ever seen in a motion picture (credit is due to cinematographer Wally Pfeister and film editor Dody Dorn, who also did brilliant work in Nolan's previous film Memento), but the picture also works best when it has an untethered, slightly unresolved quality to it -- just what are two Los Angeles police detectives doing in Alaska, anyway? One of the police officers in Nightmute, Ellie (Hilary Swank), turns out to be an acolyte of Dormer -- his previous investigations have turned into classic case studies for up-and-coming law enforcers -- and she registers most acutely when Dormer seems to be acting in ways that just don't seem to be quite right.

The film turns a bit too literal in the end, with some flailing about that seems to be in the picture because somebody, somewhere, said it just had to be there. It also looks as if Hilary Swank's character is going to be reduced to being as about relevant to the action as a bedknob, but she pulls things together in the end -- she shows whether anyone is going to get away clean or not out of the increasingly murky situation. Shortly before that happens, Dormer reveals why he is just one step ahead of being investigated by his own department: he rigged a case so that a person that he thought was guilty ended up behind bars. "I assign guilt," is how Dormer sums up his job. It's a distortion, like the physical and sensory ones that he experiences in Alaska after going for too many nights without sleep, of what law enforcers are supposed to do, which is to determine who the wrongdoers are, but under the prevailing circumstances that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Al Pacino's character is the one about whom we seem to know the least -- very little about his family background or personal predilections is given away -- but the way in which he portrays the gradations of Dormer's decline makes this one of his most fascinating and involving characterizations in years. Dormer is revealed as inhabiting that small, grey corridor inbetween which he travels from being a good cop to a bad one -- he's hedged and stepped over the line of boundary into the "other" territory, then stepped back, so many times, but once that first step is made, it's irrevocable and nothing can ever be the same way again. Dormer's moral compass, though, turns out to be his sole reason for existence, and once he loses that, he's lost in the void. Pacino's character in Insomnia can't afford to go to sleep, because, once he does, he's gone.


Directed by:
Christopher Nolan

Starring:
Al Pacino
Robin Williams
Hilary Swank
Maura Tierney
Martin Donovan
Nicky Katt
Paul Dooley

Written by:
Hillary Seitz
Nikolaj Frobenius
Erik Skjoldbjaerg

Rated:
R - Restricted.
No one under 17 
admitted without parent
or adult guardian
.

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