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Insomnia Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2002

Al Pacino and Robin Williams

"Insomnia" is director Christopher Nolan's first feature film since his impressive breakthrough last year, "Memento". And though this remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller is much more straightforward than the non-linear "Memento", Nolan's distinctive style is evident in this well-crafted suspense-thriller, particularly in how he places the audience into the main character's shoes, while creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic dread and foreboding.

The story begins with the arrival of Los Angeles detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino of "Any Given Sunday", who is in top form here) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) in Nightmute, Alaska. A teenage girl is dead, and they have been brought in to assist the local police with the murder investigation. Among the officers that Will and Hap work with is an enthusiastic rookie named Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank of "Boys Don't Cry"), who has followed Will's legendary career with great interest. However, true to a local saying that people living in Alaska are either born there or have moved their to escape something in their past, it seems that Will and Hap have taken on the assignment to distance themselves from an Internal Affairs investigation. Even more troubling is Hap's admission to his partner that he is about to cut a deal-- a move that would tarnish Will's spotless reputation and potentially let loose the criminals he has spent a lifetime putting away.

Hilary Swank

Things get interesting when the suspect is cornered in a cabin on a foggy shore. The suspect, a local mystery writer named Walter Finch (Robin Williams, seen recently in "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"), manages to elude capture, and in the confusion, Will accidentally shoots and kills Hap. Fearing how it looks, given the context of the Internal Affairs investigation and Hap's planned deal, Will covers up his misdeed and pins the shooting on Walter.


As a result of the botched takedown, Will now has two agendas: to catch the killer, as well as to cover up his role in Hap's shooting, with the latter involving extensive tampering of the evidence. However, these two agenda items become inextricably intertwined when Will begins receiving telephone calls from Walter, who uses his knowledge about what actually happened with Hap's death to blackmail him. And thus the dilemma facing Will: collar Walter and risk having all of his past arrests being overturned by the truth, or let the killer go free and keep his reputation intact. As Will's guilty conscience gets the better of him, he soon finds himself unable to sleep, which is not helped by the 'white nights' that bathe sunshine in this part of the world all day and all night. And if that wasn't bad enough, Ellie has been assigned the task of writing up Hap's shooting, and her diligent detective work slowly begins to uncover the truth.

Though it may appear to be yet another 'serial killer thriller', "Insomnia" is far more intelligent and complex than the marketing would have you believe. The script, co-written by Hillary Seitz, Nikolaj Frobenius, and Erik Skjoldbjærg (the latter two who wrote the script for the original 1997 Norwegian film) draws some interesting parallels among its principal players, the foremost being between Will and Walter. Though Walter is decidedly evil and twisted, he considers his crime to be an accident, which he says that he deeply regrets (Williams' low-key performance gives this assertion some level of credibility). And despite his spotless reputation, it is revealed that Will is no different, as he is willing to bend the rules and cover up his role in an accidental death to 'do the greater good', which includes saving his own hide. And though he finds Walter repugnant, he also finds himself tempted by Walter's offer, as it may be the only thing that will allow him to conquer the slippery slope of redemption.

Pacino and Swank

Another parallel is drawn between the veteran and the rookie cops, Will and Ellie. Will is the type of cop that Ellie wishes she could be, while Ellie is the type of cop that Will likes to think of himself as being. This culminates into a powerful moment near the end of the film, when Ellie finds with evidence she would rather not have uncovered. Thus, she is confronted with a similar decision to what Will has been battling since arriving in Alaska: to remain faithful to the truth, or hide behind what euphemistically called 'the greater good'.

Moviegoers familiar with Nolan's "Memento" will see the director's stylistic touches at play in "Insomnia". Similar to how the reverse chronology of "Memento" placed viewers in the shoes of the film's amnesiac protagonist, Nolan gives the audience a feel for Will's increasing sense of sleeplessness-induced disorientation with quick cuts, wobbly close-ups, muted sounds, and jarring flashbacks. In addition, long-time Nolan collaborator David Julyan provides a synthesizer-heavy musical score evocative of the work he did in "Memento", giving this latest film the same bleak atmosphere and sense of impending doom. Finally, cinematographer Wally Pfister (who also worked on "Memento") does some beautiful lensing in this film, making good use of the stunning Alaskan landscapes, such as in the opening shot, where a plane carrying Will and Hap flies over the broken brown and white landscape of a glacier.

While "Insomnia" is nowhere near as mind-bending and thought-provoking as "Memento", Christopher Nolan certainly shows that he is not a one-trick pony when it comes to creating suspenseful and stirring motion pictures. With its top-notch performances by seasoned actors, intelligent script that defies the usual 'serial killer thriller' conventions, and immaculate lensing, "Insomnia" will probably end up being one of the smarter movies to come out this summer.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

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