Sent from the city to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in a small Alaska town, a police detective (Pacino) accidentally shoots his own partner while trying to apprehend a suspect. Instead of admitting his guilt, the detective is given an unexpected alibi, but this "solution" only multiplies the emotional complexity and guilt over his partner's death. He's also still got a murder to solve, in addition to the blackmail and framing of an innocent bystander being orchestrated by the man they were chasing. There's also a local detective (Swank) who is conducting her own personal investigation... of his partner's death. Will it all come crashing down on him? Written by
greg Dean Scmitz
Like the 1997 Norwegian film on which it is based, `Insomnia' is a superbly crafted crime thriller, one that is more concerned with the psychological complexities of its main character than with the minutiae of the criminal investigation itself - though the details of the case are fascinating in their own right as well.
Al Pacino delivers his finest performance in years in the role of Detective Will Dormer, a seasoned homicide investigator brought in from Los Angeles to help solve the murder of a seventeen-year-old high school student in rural Alaska. The problem is that, back in L.A., Dormer is facing some heat of his own from LAPD's Internal Affairs Division, which is beginning a probe into the propriety of some of the veteran's actions on the job. Back in Alaska, while on a stakeout to nab the possible killer, Dormer becomes disoriented in the fog and ends up accidentally shooting and killing his longtime partner, a colleague who, Dormer had just learned, was planning to cooperate with the IA investigation back home, thereby bringing about the possible ruination of Dormer's career and reputation. Caught off guard by this sudden turn of events, Dormer suddenly finds himself in the unfamiliar role of perpetrator, looking for ways to cover up a `crime' rather than unravel it. One of the compelling themes of the film is its insistence that only a very thin line separates those who commit crimes from those whose job it is to uncover and prosecute the wrongdoers.
Dormer is stunned to find how quickly and easily he can cross over that line. The outstanding screenplay by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg really knows how to get into the minds and emotions of its characters, particularly in the case of Dormer, who turns out to be one of the most psychologically complex and fascinating figures we have encountered in the movies in a long, long time. Here is a man who has built his name and career on knowing how to unravel complex crimes, always priding himself on being one step ahead of the criminals who are so convinced they have left no traces behind which could point to their guilt. Yet, now Dormer finds himself in the same boat, as he anxiously looks for ways to hide the fact that he shot - even accidentally - a man who had the power to bring him down. As the story develops, Dormer, whom we assume at the start is innocent of the charges for which he is being investigated by Internal Affairs, begins to seem less and less innocent and more and more capable of doing just exactly what it is he is being accused of. Yet, the triumph of the film is that Pacino and the screenwriters never let us feel we know all there is to know about Dormer. He is truly a man of mystery, so tightly coiled that even he doesn't know or understand all that is going on in the deepest, darkest recesses of his psyche. By setting the film in the summer near the Arctic Circle, the filmmakers are able to provide a natural phenomenon to help aggravate Dormer's potentially psychotic condition. Like Mersault in Camus' `The Stranger,' Dormer becomes strangely disoriented by the oppressive effect of the sun, though, in this case, it is the lack of a night that drives Dormer crazy through insomnia. As the virtually indistinguishable days and nights pass without sleep, Dormer begins to suffer from delirium and hallucinations, making it all the harder for him to separate truth from fiction, fantasy from reality and - most importantly - right from wrong and morality from immortality. When the killer reveals to Dormer that he saw him shoot his partner, Dormer finds himself faced with the ethical crisis of turning the culprit in or of bonding with him as `partners' in mutual criminality and guilt. Here again the once-clear and distinct line between investigator and criminal suddenly ceases to exist.
Pacino, stoop-shouldered and craggy-faced - the prominent bags under his eyes a physical testimony to his weariness and sleeplessness - plumbs the very depths of this infinitely rich and complex character. In fact, there is nothing less than an outstanding performance in the entire film. Robin Williams brings an air of restraint and understatement to the part of Walter Finch, the killer who plays a cat-and-mouse mind game with the sleepless, intellectually vulnerable Dormer, exploiting Dormer's weakened state to his own advantage. Hilary Swank brings a warmth and compassion to her role as Ellie Burr, an eager-to-please detective who has long idolized Dormer and his work, who also has to make an emotionally wrenching choice near the end of the film. Finally, Maura Tierney makes her few scenes count as a sympathetic innkeeper whom Dormer turns to as the person who happens to be handy at the moment when the need to unburden his soul spontaneously arises within him.
As the film's director, Christopher Nolan establishes and maintains a mood of quiet intensity throughout the course of the film. Helped by the stark, but somewhat oppressively gloomy beauty of the Alaskan outpost setting, Nolan makes us experience the same sense of unease and disorientation Dormer himself feels. Nolan has chosen to punctuate his film with a series of highly charged, intensely dramatic confrontation scenes between Dorman and any number of the other characters in the film. The film never wanes in interest for even a moment of its running time.
It is an enormous pleasure to see a film as intelligently conceived and executed as `Insomnia.' Kudos to everyone involved with making this such a rare and fascinating movie going experience. But the greatest thanks goes to Al Pacino himself. He has never been so good.
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