The director of "Memento" keeps the chronology moving forward this time, but continues the mind games that will get under your skin, again. Insomnia is Christopher Nolan's first big Hollywood movie, and he couldn't have made a bigger name for himself.
A murder has plagued a small Alaskan town, their police force has called in Los Angles detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) to help catch the suspected brutal killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams). Dormer is accompanied by his partner, Hap, (Martin Donovan) who has a little baggage of his own. While having dinner in a local restaurant, he threatens to reveal details about a former case that could put Dormer's career in jeopardy. From the start, we see turmoil between the two cops. Both men are under an internal fairs investigation, and Hap knows that the pressure would be lifted off him if the case would be made against his partner.
Dormer and Hap travel with the local cops to an isolated beach house out in the Alaskan wilderness, where they suspect the killer to be located. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, a refreshing site that we are starting to see less and less of thanks to CGI that produce artificial environments in virtually every movie being made.
They arrive at the house, surrounded by bright green wildlife and mountain ranges. A shadow like figure appears in the distance, and the intense chase begins. The cops chase the man through the thick fog and consequently, Dormer fatally shoots his partner. We automatically think it was an accident, but the rough beginning between Dormer and Hap will make you question Dormer's integrity. Although highly doubtful, we don’t know the true character of Dormer, so we can’t assume he’s a saint. When backup arrives, Dormer understandably lies, and tells the Alaskan cops that it was the killer who shot his partner. Detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) is assigned to investigate that specific shooting, and begins to suspect Dormer after learning about his past.
Now completely involved, Dormer completely takes over. He barks out orders to his new team and establishes a plan to capture their killer. While being respected as the number one man, Ellie Burr continues to keep one eye on him, beginning to suspect the truth, but will she ever find out that Dormer was the one who killed his partner? You’ll have to see the movie for yourself to see how that mini-plot unfolds.
While working on the case from his cramped apartment, now without a partner, Dormer gets a call (about an hour into the movie-finally!) from our pal Robin Williams, who tells Dormer that he saw the whole incident and blackmails Dormer into helping him set up an innocent man to take the fall.
I didn't know what to expect walking into the movie knowing that Al Pacino would play the good guy, and Robin Williams the role of a book writer that has brutally killed a 17 year old girl. But it worked. In fact, Williams was disturbing. I tried seeing him in his "Mrs. Doubtfire" days, but I couldn't produce an image. He was evil, and did a fascinating job. Pacino was just as good. His tired expressions were believable, and so was his impatient and stern attitude.
Besides having to track down the killer, Dormer has to face an even bigger obstacle. It is summer in the unforgiving town of Nightmute, (just the name of the city sounds cold) and the sun has been shining for his entire stay. Dormer finds himself awake every night, unable to sleep through the blistering sunlight. Pacino's naturally raspy voice and baggy eyes make you feel his pain, and he always sounds like he was awoken at 3 a.m. As each day passes, his character gets no sleep, unable to adjust to the light. To make things worse, he keeps getting flashbacks of the chase where his kills his own partner. He also begins to hallucinate while his health sharply deteriorates with each passing day.
Now back to the other villain. What makes William’s character, Finch, so scary, is his everlasting presence. Even when he’s not on screen, you can feel him. He’s not afraid of Dormer. He lets him get close, very close; in a sick attempt to become personal with him. In one chase scene, Dormer falls between two floating logs, swallowed in the freezing water. Knowing that the chase is over, Finch just stands there, looking into the eyes of Dormer while he’s in the water. After having enough, he walks away leaving his pursuer behind.
The chemistry between Williams and Pacino is strong. In one scene that is just as uplifting as it is creepy, Dormer is investigating Finch’s other home, in the city. While in the house, the phone rings, but he doesn’t dare pick up the receiver. The answering machine clicks on, and Finch is on the other line. “How are you doing?” he casually asks. “You can take a shower if you want to…there’s warm towels hanging up…Oh, if you can do me a favor, please feed the dogs before you leave.”
After yet another frustrating day, the struggle continues in his hotel room. The sunlight is like the element in a bad dream that you can’t get away from. Dormer tries everything; from smothering himself with his bed sheets, to boarding up the windows. No matter what he does or how hard he tries to keep the light out of his room, all attempts fail. The loud commotion he causes brings attention to the hotel attendants, who of course don’t understand why Dormer is suffering so badly.
The fatigue accumulates as the investigation continues throughout the long days. Dormer’s raspy voice gets deeper, and his eyes sag heavier. His hallucinations become stronger, and trying to solve the case becomes harder.
We rarely see the two together. Because only he knows the truth to who really killed Hap, Finch feels that the situation is in his control. They meet on a ferry boat, not to duel it out to the death, but to discuss terms on how they’re going to work out Dormer’s predicament. Isn’t it unfortunate that Dormer has such a good reputation as one of LA’s finest, and can now be ruined if the word gets out that he is a reckless cop killer?
Finch can be compared to a young child who is fascinated with detective work. He wants to be Dormer’s partner, and claims to be a fan. Dormer is less enthusiastic about his new friend. While talking on the phone, he warns Finch that he’s messing with a smart cop. “You're as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a plumber,” he reminds Finch.
Everything about Insomnia is solid. The script flows, and the acting is nothing less of what you’d expect out of two high caliber actors. Swank also carries her load as the suspicious investigator trying to learn the history of Dormer, and the facts regarding his shady past.
Fans of pure suspense will be a little disappointed at the lack of the ‘jump out of the closet scenes.” There are a few of them of course, but people who don’t appreciate artistic films built on drama and development will be bored.
The constant daylight becomes it's own entity, making the frosty Alaskan terrain a surprisingly creepy setting for Dormer to roam. Insomnia is a thriller you want to stay up for, even if you haven’t had any sleep in the past six days, like detective Will Dormer.