Movie Review by Kris Griffiths
Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt
Director: Christopher Nolan
Legend has it that certain members of the Rolling Stones once tested their rock ‘n’ roll stamina by not sleeping for a week. Will Dormer, INSOMNIA’s insomniac played by a world-weary Pacino, manages to equal this impressive display of deprivation though not of his own volition, and without the aid of youthful energy or class A drugs. A man with a lot on his mind, Al is not a pretty sight come the end of the film.
So what’s on his mind? Well for a start Dormer, a highly ranked and respected detective, is suddenly under investigation for malpractice and is sent from sunny LA to grey Alaska to help solve the brutal murder of a seventeen year-old girl and to keep him out of the way. Upon arrival in the town of Nightmute the already tired lawman finds himself in a place of perpetual daylight, where night never falls – something that screws up many a visitor’s body clock.
Instantly wowing the town’s local police force with his detective skills he identifies the main murder suspect as Walter Finch (Robin Williams) but during a stakeout he somehow shoots his own partner dead. Blaming it on the suspect, he attempts to cover it up but Finch witnessed this major goof and uses it to blackmail him, basically saying, “keep it zipped about my little slip-up and I’ll keep it zipped about yours”. Dormer decides to zip it, despite the dead girl’s boyfriend taking the rap, and a dangerous game of cat and mouse ensues, but who exactly is the cat?
Well as much as the cornered cop would love a catnap, he unsurprisingly struggles for shut-eye through fear of the killer and the looming investigation, the guilt over his partner’s death and the framed innocent – and the daylight relentlessly streaming through his curtains. And as sleep continues to elude him, the murder case becomes a tad trickier whilst his mind moves slowly towards the madness already ingrained in his adversary.
A remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, INSOMNIA is actually filmed in British Columbia and directed by British talent Christopher Nolan who, after the critical success of MEMENTO, is proving to be a master of the thriller. The basic and now hackneyed premise of a superstar detective versus a clever psycho is given a compelling new slant, not only through the moral ambiguity of the former, but the casting of Robin Williams for the latter. After struggling in his previous serious role for 1998’s WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, Williams suddenly shines as the cool calculating crackpot and is the perfect foil for Pacino. Their onscreen chemistry fuels the film.
All the while it is Dormer’s desperate thirst for mental fuel that is the killer complication and Pacino milks our empathy with a skilfully portrayed deterioration. We can see in his well-trained visage that this man is crying out for rapid eye movement. Meanwhile various forms of filmic trickery expose his mental state by cleverly distorting his surroundings: a humdrum office scene is made to seem like a scary LSD trip complete with freaky-sounding fans and the coffee machine from hell.
INSOMNIA succeeds where other psychological thrillers fail because it fully explores the psyche of its protagonist whilst providing a thrilling watch. There’s nothing like a good internal conflict to keep the thought train moving, and mine was at full steam ahead throughout. I arrived at two observational stops on the way: Nightmute is a town that has no night, and Dormer, which is Spanish for ‘to sleep’, is a man that has no sleep. INSOMNIA’s contrariness winds down to a conclusion that no one will foresee, and just like the sudden sleep an insomniac never sees coming, that’s what makes it so satisfying.