Director Christopher Nolan's follow-up to last year's spectacular hit Memento is a fairly standard police thriller with spectacular scenery, some intriguing plot twists and a memorable protagonist in Al Pacino's world-weary police detective Will Dormer.
As the film opens, Will gazes exhaustedly out the windows of a small twin-engine plane flying over jagged Alaskan ice fields through foreboding patches of air turbulence. He's headed for Nightmute, Alaska, a tiny town where a 17-year-old girl has recently been beaten to death, her body discovered in the nearby landfill. A former Los Angeles Police Department buddy is now the police chief in Nightmute and has asked Will and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) to come up and help his young, green detectives work the case. Hilary Swank plays Ellie Burr, a starry-eyed young cop who holds up Will as her mentor and hero.
A remake of a 1998 Norwegian film, Insomnia is brooding, atmospheric and well told. A subplot revolving around an internal affairs investigation back in L.A., in which Hap may cooperate, hanging Will out to dry, becomes central to the evolution of the main plot when Will accidentally shoots Hap during a foggy stake-out. Will lies to the Nightmute police, indicating that the bullet came from the subject in pursuit, and from here on, he must struggle not only with the pursuit of the Nightmute killer, but with his own motivations as well. Did he, as it seems, shoot Hap accidentally or did he do it to save himself? A figure lurking in the fog and shadows, it turns out, saw the shooting happen and blackmails Will with what he knows. Ellie, meanwhile, is assigned to cover the "accidental" cop shooting while Will scurries to cover up his involvement.
Early in the film, when Will is looking at the dead body of the young girl, searching for clues, he sums up the murderer this way: "He crossed the line and he didn't even blink. You don't come back from that." Eventually he too crosses the line and whether he can come back or will continue to cover up a lie becomes one of the film's central questions.
Robin Williams enters the film about halfway through as a suspect in the murder case. He's Walter Finch, a true-crime writer who had a friendship with the murdered girl and who is following Will's every move in Alaska. Williams plays Finch quietly and seriously, a relief after his horrific over-blown performance in the awful Death to Smoochy.
But the compelling center of Insomnia lies in Pacino's determined, steady performance. Will reaches Alaska in summer when the sun shines 24 hours a day, and in addition to all his other problems, he cannot sleep. As the film progresses, he becomes more and more exhausted, jittery and prone to hallucinations. Pacino conveys Will's fatigue with his scratchy voice, baggy eyelids and slumped shoulders. His character is a cop who has lived out his better days but doesn't know how to do anything else. He's tired of the ugliness that dominates his profession and he's tired of being tired. In Pacino's hands, he becomes a powerful symbol of all the small mistakes we make and the lies we tell that always eventually catch up with us.
Nolan's direction of the camera and the action is interesting and well paced. Nightmute is rendered miniature by the looming mountains that surround it just as Will Dormer, the invincible cop, is rendered helpless in the situation he creates by shooting Hap and lying about it. The bright Alaska sun reveals every crevice in the icy landscape, just as it reveals every wrinkle in Will's craggy face. Insomnia remains compelling at every turn, keeping us interested until the climactic final scene when we find out whether or not Will will finally get to close his weary eyes.
-- Kathryn Eastburn