Insomnia (2002)

Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 05/24/02 13:26:02

"Stark, dark, bright & brilliant, Insomnia is one great movie."
5 stars (Awesome)

John Carpenter knew it when directing his 1982 classic The Thing. Filmmakers extraordinaire Joel & Ethan Coen also knew it when they were putting together their phenomenal Fargo. If you're trying to create an insular, sterile and unsettling world for moviegoers to get lost in, nothing works like snow. Lots of it. Coming off his universally adored Memento, director Christopher Nolan paints a devilishly tenuous ice-coated canvas in Insomnia, a tightly-wound and fascinating thriller that could stand as one of 2002's best.

Set in the white-washed and brutally beautiful landscapes of Alaska (actually filmed in Vancouver, but the result is no less amazing), Nolan's Insomnia is a loose remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 film of the same name. As I have not seen the original film (yet), I can't comment on how close the two films actually are, but it's clearly evident that this remake more than stands on its own. If word-of-mouth is true and the original is even better than this version, I can't wait to see it.

Because (remake or not) Insomnia is a damn good thriller, one of those 2-hour journeys that fly by quickly as audiences gasp excitedly and wring their knuckles expectantly. Not content to present the audience with a simple cat-and-mouse pursuit, Nolan and screenwriter Hillary Seitz repeatedly up the tension and play a few tricks on the audience as well.

Will Dormer and Hap Eckhart are two of L.A.'s finest detectives, sent on a curious assignment: head up a murder investigation in the remote Alaska town of Nightmute. Why two decorated detectives would be assigned such a thankless assignment is made clear early on; the pair (along with several other officers) are currently under Internal Affairs investigation, and the L.A. brass believe the partners are better served working out of town for a few weeks.

After some astute and effective inquiries, Dormer and Eckhart (along with several local officers) believe they have their suspect surrounded. Following a haunting and tragic search, Dormer inadvertantly kills his fog-blind partner, and if that's not damning enough - the murderer is the only witness to Dormer's horrifying mistake. In order to avoid further suspicion from the Internal Affairs powers-that-be, Dormer must cover up Hap's death by pinning it on his escaped suspect...which makes things doubly difficult once the killer's identity is discovered.

Everything I've divulged takes place in the first 30 minutes of the movie, so don't hate me for divulging 'spoilers'. Although the introductory scenes are as compelling as anything in Insomnia, the movie really starts to roll after Hap's accidental demise. Dormer's inability to confess begins a tense and hypnotic web of lies and deceit, and the only person who knows the truth is a cold-blooded killer.

The stark, brilliant, unending sunshine of Nightmute soon becomes a curse to Dormer, as the detective is unable to acclimate to a land without night. As the investigation drags on, Dormer's inability to find answers combines with his desperate need to protect his sin, resulting in one strung-out and desperate detective. As neophyte policewoman Ellie Burr conducts an investigation on Hap's death, local author Walter Finch pops out of the woodwork as an unexpectedly credible murder suspect. Dormer's unending day just keeps getting worse.

Simply put, Insomnia is a cause for celebration. It's a deliberate, intense, and altogether hypnotic thriller. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Al Pacino offering one of his most heart-wrenching and effective performances in years (perhaps ever), Hilary Swank contributes rock-solid support as Officer Burr, and Robin Williams, playing Walter Finch, is nothing short of a revelation. Williams has proved in the past that he has the chops for dramatic performances, but he brings a wide-eyed clarity and logic to Walter Finch that makes the villain all the more fascinating.

A handful of familiar character actors fill up the background quite capably, most notably the underrated Nicky Katt as a skeptical cop and the underused Maura Tierney as a sympathetic innkeeper. Martin Donovan is intense and commanding, although his ill-fated Hap logically doesn't get much screen time after the first 25 minutes.

If you've grown weary of by-the-book thrillers like High Crimes and Murder By Numbers, and you're brave enough to withstand the summertime crowds, Insomnia is an "adult movie" that's definitely worth the trouble. There are a few harrowing chases, but for the most part Insomnia is all about exchanges of dialogue; beautiful, crackling, intense dialogue. It's rare to see such an excellent movie released among the summertime monsters, but it's a safe bet Insomnia will be remembered come Oscar time.

One of the most satisfying crime thrillers in years. See it. And then give the original a rent. It's only fair.

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