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Insomnia
2002 - R - 118 Mins.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producer: Edward L. McDonnell, Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Paul Junger Witt
Written By: Hillary Seitz
Starring: Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Robin Williams, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt
Review by: David Trier
   
Ten years ago, we'd salivate profusely over the idea of Al Pacino and Robin Williams in the same film. I'm salivating right now but these pretzels are really salty. Anyway, nowadays, the idea of Pacino and Williams in the same film is immediately suspect. Pacino (like Robert DeNiro and especially Christopher Walken) has often been reduced to playing loud, irritating, vaguely amusing caricatures of himself. And pretty much since The Fisher King (his last really great film) Williams has either provided us with sappy sentimentalists (Bicentennial Man) or overstimulating clowns (Patch Adams). But the fierce screenwriting of some Scandinavians and the sly directing talents of Christopher Nolan keep these two in check, drawing from them only simplicity and subtlety, making the storyline the real star of Insomnia.

Veteran detective Will Dormer (Pacino) and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) have been sent to Alaska to investigate the murder of a local teen. (Sidenote: Something ought to be done about local teens. They're always causing trouble.) Their relationship is not at its best since Internal Affairs seems to have convinced Hap to cut a deal regarding some shady police work. Dormer knows this will eventually lead to his own professional demise as I.A. will inevitably come for him on whatever dirt they can find. Oh but his problems are only beginning. First and foremost, there's a reason we don't see a lot of tv commercials saying, "come to sunny Alaska!" Otherwise they'd have to put a disclaimer stating, "where the sun won't leave for six freakin' months!" Under perpetual daylight, Dormer can't get any sleep and this digs away at him as the story progresses. Oh but his problems are only beginning, I said. Tracking the murder suspect, Brody (Robin Williams), through the fog, Dormer accidentally shoots Hap. When detective Duggar (Nicky Katt) and rookie detective Burr (Hilary Swank) arrive, Dormer tells them it was Brody who shot his partner. This sets into motion a high-stakes game when Brody, witness to Hap's death, tries to blackmail Dormer into framing the girl's abusive boyfriend. Brody claims he killed the girl by accident, just like Dormer killed Hap. But how much of each of these deaths were accidents? Hmmmmm????? Sleep deprivation, planted evidence, suspicious inquiries and knuckle-gnawing suspense ensue.

This is a solid, tight suspense thriller that works very well. The true test of any suspense film is whether or not the audience really wants to know what will happen to all the characters, good or bad. Part of the appeal of Insomnia is comparable to the FX show The Shield; three-dimensional characters trying to clean up their own messes while at the same time trying to solve a crime. The reason it works is that their own messes are just as interesting as the crimes themselves. Incidentally, this is why NYPD Blue doesn't really work (when will Sipowicz get another partner?).

The film starts off a bit sluggish with some weak dialogue as the characters are introduced to us. And the hotel manager (Maura Tierney - a welcome addition to any cast) is completely unnecessary, only providing someone for Pacino to talk to and not really doing anything to move the plot. Nicky Katt is a very talented actor, but more should have been done with his character, which is basically just the "other" detective. Hilary Swank's character starts off as a bit stock, the eager precocious rookie. And there's nothing original about her being extraordinarily good at her job even though she's new. However, the character grows on you and Swank's performance is excellent. Pacino also starts out a little weak, doing what looks like an act with his signature style of speech, but once the insomnia starts to kick in, Pacino reminds us why he's so famous, delivering some of the best method acting to be seen. Williams plays it straight and comes off as very believable and creepy. Avoiding the mistakes of Hannibal, Insomnia's foe is rarely seen until it's absolutely necessary, adding to the suspense.

Setting the story in Alaska's sunny season works very well with the plot (even though technically the area of Alaska it's set in is outside the Arctic Circle and the sun sets every day - hey, it's a movie). And the script forms logical conclusions about each of its characters. The ending may be disappointing to some, but I think it had real class. Marketers sold this as a standard homicidal-maniac-toys-with-workaholic-cop flick, but it is really much more creative than that. Christopher Nolan's Memento was overlooked at the Oscars, probably for being too interesting or thought provoking, but still made him a force to be reckoned with. Insomnia is not as exhilarating as Memento and occasionally suffers an itchy rash of Hollywood-itis with an ever-present string soundtrack, but its pacing is perfect and its style is predominantly focused on exalting the story, not just the director or the actors. Insomnia, as a result, is suspenseful, involving, dark and entertaining. Amen.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

 
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