Policeman, prey, protégée: Christopher Nolan puts Al Pacino in uneasy alliances in the psychological thriller ‘Insomnia’

February 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 21, 2015

When Insomnia opens, renowned homicide detective Will Dormer doesn’t know that his life is spinning out of control. But over the course of Christopher Nolan’s 2002 psychological thriller, Dormer comes to realize that he is a man who is badly lost, in a moral sense if not a geographical one.

Al Pacino headlines the cast as Dormer, a veteran Los Angeles cop who has been dispatched along with his partner to a small Alaska community where the local police are baffled by the murder of a teenager. The unclothed body of the victim, 17-year-old Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe), was found in a garbage dump; the corpse was bathed and otherwise treated in such a fashion that no physical evidence remains to implicate any suspect.

The obvious culprit is Randy Stetz (Jonathan Jackson), Kay’s abusive boyfriend. Not only was Randy the last person to see Kay alive, he argued with her shortly before her disappearance. But Dormer, who portentously states “I know things” in a contentious interview with Randy, and who claims at another point that he can identify a killer by smell, quickly devises a ploy to flush out the real murderer.

Just as the stakeout is about to pay off, however, a series of mistakes — one of them Dormer’s — snowball into a fiasco. Not only does the suspect escape, but one cop is sent to the hospital while another ends up in the morgue.

Dormer finds himself in uneasy alliances with two equally determined but otherwise very different partners. One is Walter Finch, an introverted local crime novelist who offers not to tell authorities about Dormer’s tragic error in exchange for a very big favor. The other is Ellie Burr, a sharp-minded but inexperienced Alaska detective whose first major assignment is filling out the paperwork accounting for the dead police officer.

Because the movie occurs in midsummer, and because the town of Nightmute, Alaska, is above the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets. (Yes, Nightmute is a real place, and it really is located that far north.) As each bright night slips unmarked into an equally bright new day, the sleepless Dormer finds his grip on his sanity slipping away — hence, of course, the title, Insomnia.

The movie, written by Hillary Seitz, is based on a 1997 Scandinavian film of the same title that was directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, who wrote the script with Nikolaj Frobenius. (The only name I recognized from the cast of the original movie was that of Stellan Skarsgård, who’s appeared in countless American and European films.)

Seitz’s screenplay is nimble and clever, for the most part, although it burdens Pacino and Katharine Isabelle, who plays the victim’s best friend, with some regrettable over-the-top dialogue. Consequently, Isabelle is bit uneven in her key scene, and some of Pacino’s early scenery-chewing verges on self-parody; fortunately, he throttles back a bit over the latter half of the movie.

Robin Williams shines as Finch, Dormer’s wily nemesis. This was the middle of a brilliant stretch of dark roles for Williams. From 2002 to 2004, he starred in the morbid features InsomniaOne Hour Photo and Final Cut as well as the black comedy Death to Smoochy (which I haven’t seen).

Hilary Swank is fine as Burr, the young and almost embarrassingly eager-to-learn rookie detective who studied Dormer’s career at the police academy. Swank, who’s best known for her starring roles in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, was 27 when Insomnia was released, and she looks as though she could easily have played a teenager at the time. Still, the actress comes off as convincingly tough when the film requires her to be, and she’s remarkably restrained when developments prompt her to begin doubting her idol.

The supporting cast is similarly wonderful. Martin Donovan is particularly good as Eckhart, a cop who works well with his partner but disagrees about the best way to handle the burgeoning political scandal and internal affairs investigation that could cast doubt on some of the duo’s homicide convictions. (I also enjoyed Donovan’s work in Unthinkable.) Other notables include Maura Tierney as Rachel, a sympathetic innkeeper; Paul Dooley as Nyback, Nightmute’s grizzled police chief; and Nicky Katt as Fred Duggar, the local detective whose probe of the Connell murder is pre-empted by Dormer.

Insomnia was Nolan’s third feature film, and he is firmly in command throughout the picture. Together with cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley, he makes the forbidding arctic landscape seem like a tangible character in the drama that unfolds on screen. (In reality, much of the picture was filmed in British Columbia, although some aerial photography was conducted in Alaska.)

The movie has much in common with other Nolan pictures. There’s a hint of Memento’s non-chronological story-telling. Much like Inception, the film repeatedly shows us glimpses of mysterious images, the significance of which isn’t explained until late in the movie; also, both Insomnia and Inception force audiences to question the integrity of the main characters.

Moreover, the protagonist who has much in common with his antagonist is a staple of Nolan’s films. Here, it’s Dormer vs. Finch; in Memento, it’s Leonard vs. Teddy; in The Prestige, the magicians who are both professional and romantic rivals; in Inception, Cobb vs. his wife, or at least his acutely vindictive memory of her; in the Dark Knight trilogy, Batman vs. Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker and Bane; and in Interstellar, Cooper vs. a rogue scientist who have very different motivations for wanting to return to Earth. (In Man of Steel, which Nolan produced and co-wrote, Superman is pitted against his fellow survivor of Krypton, General Zod.)

Where Insomnia differs from most of these other stories is that the protagonist pays a much steeper price for his transgressions than most of Nolan’s other main characters. In fact, it’s hard to think of any major Nolan hero who suffers quite as much as Dormer over the course of the main on-screen story. Perhaps the magicians in The Prestige come close. (Granted, the crimes that damaged Bruce Wayne and Leonard from Memento are at least as life-changing as the mistakes that haunt Dormer, but these are depicted in flashbacks.)

At the beginning, Insomnia reminded me a bit of Twin Peaks, the David Lynch series that aired from 1990 through 1991 and helped pave the way for quirky television. Like that TV series, Insomnia features a detective visiting an isolated Northwest community to investigate the killing of a well-thought-of teenage girl, one who had a rocky dating life, and who may be the victim of a serial killer.

However, Insomnia mostly eschews the comic quirkiness of Twin Peaks in favor of plumbing the moral depths of a policeman, his prey and his protégée. This may not be the most thrilling or original mystery film, and it’s hardly as intellectually challenging as some of Nolan’s other features, particularly MementoInception and Interstellar. Still, Insomnia is a solid and enjoyable movie, and fans of psychological thrillers should find it amply rewarding.

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