For Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) the wounded Alaskan sun is like a knife that blows through his brain. Will’s not a bad man really, but he’s not a good man either. He has a reputation for taking his job too seriously, even by the standards of a homicide investigator. There are murky details about Will’s past like the suspicion that he framed a man for murder. He was guilty, Will is sure of it, but he still might’ve framed him anyway.
“Insomnia,” which is Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to Memento, is not told backwards, but both Will and Leonard from Memento are men who do not have the luxury of being alone with their own thoughts. The film opens with a shot of Alaska as Will and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) arrive from the West Coast to investigate the strange murder of a young girl. Alaska really does look like the end of the earth, a place where people either go to hide or die, or maybe become ghosts, and in the early shots of “Insomnia” we’re reminded of John Sayles’ great film Limbo which taught us that in Alaska, danger and comfort are never more than a stones throw away.
Both Will and his partner are being investigated by Internal Affairs about the case and Hap wants to spill the beans. Would Will kill Hap to silence him? Quite possibly, and as they examine the remains of the dead girl, we begin to realize that this “Insomnia” remake is going to be different than the Norwegian original. In that film, the Detective was a womanizer who was in trouble because he had sex with a witness, but Will is too tired looking for any of that. Will and Hap continue their investigation and Will immediately suspects a local horror writer named Walter Finch(Robin Williams) who was a mentor to the dead girl, and why not? He’s creepy, he’s obsessed with murder and it’s not as if Alaska is brimming with a list of usual suspects.
They close in and then something happens. Read no further if you plan to see the film. Will stages a trap for the killer, but it turns out that Walter’s actually tracking Will. While Will chases the killer through the mist, he shoots a figure who turns out to be his partner. He’s horrified, but like early in the film we wonder if it was entirely an accident or not? Even Will isn’t sure how he feels about the death of his partner, but he knows he must cover it up. The problem is that Walter has witnessed the whole thing and now he plans to blackmail Will into framing someone else for the crime. Maybe he’ll write another thriller book and use Will as a guinea pig for research. What can Will do?
The best parts of “Insomnia” are when Will tries to fight against his evil demons but is prevented from doing so because of the impossible legal trap he’s in. He killed his partner and it was an accident but by lying about it he’s already doomed himself. It goes without saying that the Pacino character isn’t able to sleep through the week long ordeal, a condition that mirrors both the title of the film and the dreary sun that keeps teasing you as to when it’s finally going to go down for the count. I think Pacino has been very over the top in his recent performances but as Will he’s very quiet and gentle, suggesting a gradual disintegration that begins from within his brain and explodes through his bloodshot eyes.
I was less impressed with Robin Williams as evil Walter. I like the fact that his character doesn’t show up until late in the film, but I didn’t much care for Williams’ choice of playing Walter, with his nice, soft tone. The idea of an actor playing a villain as being more evil with every smile and wink is fine like in the brilliant Dutch thriller “The Vanishing,” but that’s Williams shtick to begin with so it doesn’t seem like we’re seeing anything new. Actually, he kind of resembles an older version of his character in “The World According to Garp.” Williams does do a good job of projecting Walter’s main theme – that he doesn’t believe he’s evil and he doesn’t care about his actions.
“Insomnia” is a good movie, atmospheric and sometimes creepy. It grabs us with the premise and holds our attention and doesn’t let go, right up to the explosive climax when Pacino, Williams, and Hilary Swank, a Detective investigating Pacino’s actions, all converge on a house overlooking a glacier for the final showdown in the film.
I think Christopher Nolan made a safe and wise choice in selecting this project to follow Memento, but artistically, it’s not really an advance. But I bet there were a lot of considerations such as the fate of other young wunderkinds like Peter Bogdanovich or even Prince, who followed up the greatest rock n’roll film of all time in “Purple Rain” with two obscure films that even his fans found confusing. In some ways “Insomnia” wears its box office considerations like an albatross, and we sort of wish that maybe someone else had directed the film, not the director of Memento. I enjoyed “Insomia” on its own level, but I hope for his next film Nolan takes a big risk. I think I might’ve enjoyed “Insomnia” even more if parts of it were told in reverse.