Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 24, 2002

Pacino, Williams crackle in likely sleeper 'Insomnia'

By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service

INSOMNIA (Rated R with profanity, violence) Four Stars (Excellent)

A taut psychological character study, in the guise of a thriller about a possibly corrupt cop (Al Pacino) and his efforts to capture a demented killer (Robin Williams) in Alaska. Hilary Swank also stars for director Christopher Nolan (of "Memento" fame). Warner Bros., 118 mins.

In most mysteries, fear and guilt hide in darkness. But light is the enemy in the fabulous new thriller, "Insomnia."

Light robs characters of sleep, blinds gunmen in the fog and illuminates a loss of innocence — all key factors in this offbeat drama from Christopher Nolan, the hot young director of "Memento."

Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, a veteran Los Angeles cop, on special assignment in Alaska, tracking the psychopathic killer of a high school girl.

We learn early on that the likely murderer is reclusive Alaskan mystery writer Walter Finch, played by Robin Williams.

"Insomnia" creates no suspense on this point — this film's unique tension arises from the flawed personalities and problems of both the cop and the killer, and the warped relationship between them.

Dormer finds that sleeping isn't easy for newcomers in the land of the midnight sun. Blinding light streams into his hotel window all night long — despite his efforts to tape down the shades.

The bags under his eyes grow larger, his skin turns increasingly pale and he becomes more and more temperamental as the days and nights drag on. By the film's end, he's weak and disoriented.

By the way, "Dormir" is French for "to sleep," so the character's name can loosely be interpreted as Will I Sleep. (How many other Hollywood films can you list with the intelligence to employ multi-lingual puns in a character's name?)

Light, of course, isn't the cause of Dormer's restlessness. It's just the excuse. The glare is the film's brilliant metaphor for guilt.

Early in the investigation, Dormer killed his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) while stalking Finch in the fog.

And we know Dormer stood to gain by his partner's death, since Eckhart was about to testify in an internal affairs investigation back in Los Angeles. If the partner's death was an accident, it was mighty convenient.

It also remains to be seen if Dormer's dilemma will affect his attempts to catch Finch, especially since a young local cop (well-played by Hilary Swank) is smarter than she originally seemed.

The film offers Pacino a gem of a character, a complex, vulnerable, emotionally troubled protagonist. The charismatic veteran delivers one of his best performances. Pacino makes Dormer's behavior, his reactions and his temperament more and more precarious and unsteady, by perfectly measured degrees, as the character's sleepless nights mount up.

Williams impressively supports Pacino by making Finch a scary, sad sicko; just the sort of adversary to repel Dormer, even as he has to deal with him. It's a restrained but dead-on portrayal of pathetic perversion (and a successful step in Williams' avowed goal to diversify his acting choices.)

The script by Hillary Seitz adapts and improves upon a 1997 Norwegian film. She gives the American police detective a shady background and darker motives, bringing more purpose and passion to the guilt at the core of the film.

Nolan's direction brings the story to vivid life, playing marvelously with the mercurial light, strange beauty and rugged ugliness of Alaska to accent the tale. He then moves his cameras in tight to closely examine the troubled faces of his characters.

Special kudos go to cinematographer Wally Pfister, who makes light a key player in the drama, and to editor Dody Dorn, whose masterful cutting enlivens several key sequences, especially a terrifying underwater scene, under rolling lumber mill timber.

The hateful dependence established between Dormer and Finch in "Insomnia" may be the best of its kind since the strange-bedfellow pairing of Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train."

But as the dog-tired Dormer struggled vainly against the midnight sun, I also found myself thinking a lot about Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," and its guilt-ridden protagonist.

If a movie withstands such comparisons with both Hitchcock and Poe, the filmmaker must be doing something right.

Nolan certainly is. His "Insomnia" is an impressive follow-up to his cult hit, "Memento," confirming the director's promise as a smart, artful and entertaining fellow, and a major talent.

Rated R, with profanity, violence.