INSOMNIA (2002) Reviews and overview

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‘A tough cop. A brilliant killer. An unspeakable crime.’
Insomnia is a 2002 American thriller film about two LA police detectives sent to an Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl.

Directed by Christopher Nolan from a screenplay written by Hillary Seitz, based on the 1997 Norwegian film screenplay written by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg. The movie stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. Produced by Broderick Johnson, Paul Junger Witt, Andrew A. Kosove and Edward L. McDonnell.

Invited to Nightmute, Alaska, to head a murder case, a veteran LAPD detective finds his investigation disrupted by an ever-shining midnight sun that wreaks sleep-depriving havoc on him – and by personal guilt over a second crime that may be real… or a figment of his increasingly unstable consciousness.

[Contains spoilers] Review:

A teenage girl has been murdered in a small Alaskan fishing village. The chief of police (played by the great character actor Paul Dooley) asks his former LAPD partner, Will Dormer (Al Pacino), to come to Alaska and help with the investigation. Accompanying Dormer is his partner and friend, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).

Dormer has issues that go far beyond anything happening in Alaska. He’s burned out and he’s plagued by rumours that, in the past, he was a crooked cop. He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs and, shortly after they arrive in Alaska, Eckhart admits that he’s been given immunity as part of a deal to testify against Dormer.

While pursuing the suspected murderer through the Alaskan fog, Dormer fires his gun. When the fog clear, Dormer discovers that he’s killed Eckhart. Was it an accident or did Dormer intentionally shoot his partner? Not even Dormer seems to know for sure. He lies and says that the murderer shot Eckhart.

Working with a local detective (Hilary Swank), Dormer tries to solve the Alaska murder, with the knowledge that, once he does, he’ll have to return to Los Angeles and he’ll probably be indicted. Because of the midnight sun, the night never falls in Alaska and, tortured by guilt, Dormer cannot sleep. Add to that, the murderer knows that Dormer shot Eckhart. And now, he’s calling Dormer and cruelly taunting him.

Who is the murderer? His name is Walter Finch. He’s a writer and, in a stroke of brilliance, he’s played by none other than Robin Williams. To me, Robin Williams’s screen presence always carried hints of narcissism and self-destruction. Even in comedic roles, there was a transparent but very solid wall between Williams the audience. When he was shouting out a thousand words a minute and rapidly switching from one character to the next, it always seemed as if it was all a technique to keep anyone from figuring out who he really was.

In Insomnia (and, that same year, in One Hour Photo), Robin Williams reveals inner darkness that he rarely showed before or after. Finch may possess Williams’s trademark eccentric smile and nervous voice but, underneath the surface, he’s an empty shell who views human beings as being as disposable as the characters in his paperback novels.

Christopher Nolan takes us directly into the heads of these two enemies, with shots of the desolate Alaskan landscape seeming to perfectly capture the inner desolation of two minds destroyed by guilt and paranoia. (Neither Finch nor Dormer is capable of connecting with the world outside of his damaged psyche.) As seen through Nolan’s lens, Alaska becomes as surreal and haunting as one of the dream landscapes from Inception.

For those of us who found both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to be so bombastic that they verged on self-parody, Insomnia is a nice reminder that Nolan doesn’t need a pounding Han Zimmer soundtrack score to make a great movie. With Insomnia, Nolan gives us not bombast but a deceptively low-key and atmospheric journey into the heart of darkness.

Ironically, for a film about two men who cannot sleep, Insomnia will haunt your dreams.

Lisa Marie Bowman, guest reviewer via Through the Shattered Lens

Other reviews:
“Unfortunately, the moral and psychological conundrums in Insomnia which make for such intriguing viewing are punctuated by obligatory – and largely unnecessary – action scenes which feel as if they’ve been included as a sop to studio executives. Even Finch, who makes a complex, intelligent, and unsettlingly creepy villain thanks to Williams subduing his manic side, reverts to standard Hollywood bad guy tactics in a disappointingly by-the-numbers final confrontation.” 20/20 Movie Reviews

“Smoldering and intense, its deliberate pacing, marvelous cinematography and arresting performances make it a fine addition to Nolan’s canon.”

“Nolan’s frequent musical collaborator other than Hans Zimmer is David Julyan, who composes a moody score not unlike his work on Memento and The Prestige, and perhaps influenced by the atmospheric scores of Howard Shore. It perfectly complements Nolan’s slow and steady pacing and the foggy mountain vistas and overcast sunlit visuals.” Daily Film Dose

“I felt the Nolan version explored the motivation behind the crimes and the cover-ups much further than the original. Also, I felt that the performances in the new version were much better, especially in the case of the Dormer character (the character is named Jonas Engström in the original.) Pacino actually makes it look like he has been up for days and just isn’t thinking straight.” Entertain Your Brain!

“It’s truly your standard thriller fare, which is certainly beneath the talents assigned to it. Pacino is Pacino, and you can’t do anything about him–he’s always good. Williams is even good and cannily cast […] Swank…could have been anybody, really, there’s not much for her to do. As for Nolan, whose Memento was one of the only two five-cup films of last year, I never really saw his thumbprint on this.” Need Coffee

“Pacino and Williams are very good together. Their scenes work because Pacino’s character, in regarding Williams, is forced to look at a mirror of his own self-deception. The two faces are a study in contrasts. Pacino is lined, weary, dark circles under his eyes, his jaw slack with fatigue. Williams has the smooth, open face of a true believer, a man convinced of his own case.” Roger Ebert

” …thoughtful, gripping and steeped in action that defines character. The fact that this superior thriller stars three Oscar winners — Al Pacino and Hilary Swank as cops and Robin Williams as the psycho they’re chasing — and is directed by Christopher Nolan, 31, the innovator who made us all think backwards in Memento, only adds to the film’s hypnotic allure. It’s taut, tense and terrific.” Rolling Stone

“There are moments in Insomnia when the sameness of the emotional landscape becomes as wearying as the constant sunshine, but that isn’t a damning flaw, and in any case it was probably Nolan’s intention. Here, as in Memento, the director shows how film bright can be as dramatic, oppressive and revealing as film noir.” San Francisco Chronicle

Cast and characters (in order of appearance):
Al Pacino … Will Dormer
Martin Donovan … Hap Eckhart
Oliver ‘Ole’ Zemen … Pilot
Hilary Swank … Ellie Burr
Paul Dooley … Chief Nyback
Nicky Katt … Fred Duggar
Larry Holden … Farrell
Jay Brazeau … Francis
Lorne Cardinal … Rich
Paula Shaw … Coroner
Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe … Kay Connell
Tasha Simms … Mrs Connell
Maura Tierney … Rachel Clement
Jonathan Jackson … Randy Stetz
Malcolm Boddington … Principal
Katharine Isabelle … Tanya Francke
Robin Williams … Walter Finch
Kerry Sandomirsky … Trish Eckhart
Ian Tracey … Warfield (voice)
Kate Robbins … Woman on the Road
Emily Perkins … Girl at Funeral
Dean Wray … Ticket Taker

Technical details:
118 minutes
Aspect ratio: 2.39: 1
Audio: DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS


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