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Insomnia (2002)
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by Jack Sommersby

"A First-Rate, Mesmerizing Psychological Thriller"
4 stars

After coming off the grossly overrated Memento, director Christopher Nolan finally gets the opportunity to strut his substantial filmmaking stuff in this adult-oriented, sophisticated, cerebral thriller that, until its trite finale, effortlessly envelops the viewer from the git-go. Disturbing, exciting, and thought-provoking stuff.

After having suffered through such atrocious so-called thrillers like Panic Room and Murder by Numbers as of late, I was impressed with the professionalism and ingenuity of the new psychological thriller Insomnia, which provided some of the most undiluted cinematic pleasure for this reviewer in quite some time. Just how difficult is it to make a mere-competent thriller nowadays? It's not like American audiences require a whole hell of a lot out of this particular genre -- just to be involved, entertained, and pleasurably worked over. But a hearty portion of today's filmmakers have become increasingly lazy and just downright indifferent to this, favoring sensationalism over coherence, of relying on catchy story premises to carry the whole show rather than using them as mere taking-off points to infuse with their own unique visions. They've become too full of themselves and so convinced of their talent they believe they needn't exert a maximum amount of effort when a minimum will supposedly do. Or so they think. While the fools and simpletons readily accept shoddiness as a can't-do-anything-about-it given, there are still those who become dismayed when cinematic hogwash comes their way, and casting a blind eye and going all so willingly into that long goodnight is becoming a thing of the past. Life is too valuable; hard-earned money for admission costs even more so; and we're tired of paying full costs for half-baked efforts.

By all rights, Insomnia should have made for an unsatisfying filmgoing experience, for it boasts a catchy story premise -- that of a policeman doggedly searching for a killer while being physiologically broken down due to a detrimental case of sleep-deprivation -- and is directed by Christopher Nolan, who was responsible for last year's most overrated film: the asinine Memento, which tried, to no avail, to shroud an empty story with a catchy premise by telling it in reverse-chronological order. The majority bought into this narrative trickery as novelty and substance, while the minority sneered and called it on its IQ-insulting pretentiousness. To many, a film's originality automatically makes it a work of art, no matter how underwhelming the actual context; the mere attempt at art is myopically viewed as an achievement of it. This is why absurd junk like Mulholland Dr., Being John Malkovich, and The Man Who Wasn't There are granted free passes by critics and audiences alike while exquisitely made genre fare like Joy Ride, Thirteen Days and Get Over It! are priggishly dismissed as incidental because one just can't imagine talking for hours over any one of them in an overpriced coffee house. Happily, Insomnia is able to stand on its own proud, praiseworthy feet because its catchy premise has been aptly and imaginatively developed this time around -- it's as integral to the story as the characterizations, dialogue, and plot turns. This is a first-rate, mesmerizing entertainment that showcases, among other things, a magnificent, career-best performance by Al Pacino.

The film opens stunningly as a floatplane flies over a glacier and lands on the waters of the small town of Nightmute in northern Alaska (the fishing capital of the world, we're informed). On board are two Robbery/Homicide detectives from the Los Angeles PD, Will Dormer (played by Pacino) and his partner, Hap Eckhart (the always-welcome Martin Donovan), who have come to help the local cops in their investigation of the brutal death of a high-school girl whose body was found savagely beaten and dumped near the shore. Inexperienced with homicides, the department has made zero progress on the case, with matters not helped by two particulars: the girl had no known enemies; and her body had been thoroughly cleaned postmortem, leaving no forensic evidence to follow up on. Will deducts that the killer had true affectations for the victim in lieu of the considerate manner in which the body was disposed of, that he very likely will strike again, and likely has some past or present affiliation with law enforcement because he correctly anticipated what kind of forensic evidence that would be looked for.

Still, why are Will and Hap here? Well, for one thing, the chief (Paul Dooley, wasted) is a longtime friend of Will's. But there's a more telling reason: The LAPD is currently under investigation by Internal Affairs, and Hap's been pressured by IA to cut a deal; when he confesses to Will that he's going to cooperate for the sake of his family, it immediately drives a wedge between them, with Will insisting that his long and distinguished career will surely come out ruined because of a particular case where he planted evidence. On top of all this, Nightmute and its surrounding region is currently experiencing the phenomenon of the Midnight Sun, which deprives the sun of setting twenty-four hours a day for several weeks.

The only suspect to go on is the dead girl's boyfriend, Randy (an alert Jonathan Jackson), who was rumored to have had an argument with her the day of the disappearance. Not helping his case any are the bruises found on her wrists that were inflicted hours before she was killed and, thus, were unlikely put there by the killer based on the established timeline of the victim's activities that day. Will knows Randy didn't do it, but he might be holding back pertinent information, so he goes to work on him in a terrific interrogation scene where he verbally demolishes this smartass kid's pompousness like a powerful but deftly controlled hurricane. The most that gets derived from this, though, is that the victim had a secret friend whom no one else knew the identity of, which is further supported by the turning-up of an expensive dress in her bedroom closet, an item she nor her parents could have possibly afforded. Will isn't some kind of supersleuth or anything -- he just knows from years of experience that it's the small stuff, the everyday things that most people don't cast a second glance at or thought to that can be revealing. (Pacino is able to suggest a man who's learned not to overcomplicate matters -- which, in his weary eyes, suggests this goes for more than policework.)

Up until now, director Nolan has kept everything moving at a fever clip that never feels rushed, with a sustained narrative drive and editing rhythms that are ungodly seductive. We're swept up and enraptured from the very first frames, and the pacing never stalls, not a single shot is wasted, and you know you're in the hands of a director who knows exactly what he's doing. If Memento's limited screenplay allowed Nolan to function as nothing more than an efficient traffic cop, the screenplay by first-timer Hillary Seitz (an adaptation of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name -- unseen by me) enables him to endow the proceedings with something resembling a vision. Working with the superb cinematographer, Wally Pfister, Nolan goes for atmosphere and mood, deemphasizing the film's primary colors and accentuating the dirty whites, browns, grays and blacks in the indoor as well as outdoor settings. Yet there's the uncanny use of bright light, also. It's always beaming into presumably impenetrable rooms, never giving the haggard Will so much as a moment of solace (much less sleep); metaphorically, the sun is the conscience constantly eating away at him. The visual palettes are expressive but not overdeliberate, and the location shooting in Alaska and British Columbia is beautiful without ever going National Geographic on us. Also, Nolan doesn't sacrifice character for technical virtuosity. The people populating the film frame come off as flesh-and-blood creations rather than well-worn types -- they rightly command and justify their occupation of space (and that includes Hilary Shank as Ellie Burr, one of the local officers who became inspired by Will's legendary reputation while studying criminal justice at college).

The cops catch a break with a couple of discoveries, and a trap is set to lure and ensnare the killer. But things go horribly awry, with Will fatally shooting who he thinks is the killer but who turns out to be Hap. In his final words, Hap asks Will if he meant to do this; Will, however, can't answer -- he's having trouble breathing, questioning whether the shooting was triggered by his subconscious. The other cops didn't witness this, though; they merely heard the shots and came running. So by the look of things, they presume the killer pulled the trigger, and Will says nothing to disprove them. From this moment on, no matter how bad Will thought of himself before (we assume IA's case has merit) he's simply mortified over his partner's death, and he starts to come apart. With nothing to help relieve him of this grief, and with not even a minute of sleep as a temporarily reprieve, Will becomes a body of bundled-up nerves which continue to shout and scream and refuse to let him be. Yet by confessing that he was indeed the shooter, he knows IA will immediately assume he did it on purpose as a way of taking this "informant" out.

Things grow even more complicated when Will gets a phone call from the killer, who claims he witnessed the shooting and threatens to tell the police unless Will backs off and steers the direction of the investigation back onto Randy, whom he thinks will make for a handy scapegoat. So this highly decorated and respected cop soon finds himself purposely diffusing the progress of the local police's case while trying to identify and apprehend the killer on his own. When his identity is revealed at about the halfway mark, he turns out not to be some stereotypical huff-and-puff stock villain, but a timid and meek man: a reclusive crime novelist by the name of Walter Finch (Robin Williams, ingeniously cast against type). When he and Will do finally meet face to face, it's a match-up of wits by two intelligent, flawed men both seeking a tidy ending to this nightmare. Brains, rather than brawn, becomes the most volatile weapon in their eerie relationship, with Walter having the upper hand in that after six days of no sleep, Will finds himself barely able to stand up without collapsing. (If his judgment was impaired before with the IA worries, then his sleep deprivation has caused his mental capacity to slowly deteriorate.) At the same time, though, Will keeps persuading Ellie to delve further into the shooting. On an instinctive level, Will doesn't want to get caught; but his sense of decency propels him to use Ellie to do what he can't bring himself to. He's also questioning whether or not he's really any better than Walter. After all, Walter insists that he's not a monster, that he didn't mean to kill the girl but did so in a fit of unbridled rage; and he tries to convince Will that he himself did the same in shooting his partner (which he didn't, but at this point Will's judgment has become so cloudy he begins to buy into this, anyway.

Insomnia makes for one of the most riveting psychological thrillers of recent years mainly because the story doesn't revolve around the capturing of a killer before striking again. Instead, the thrills are derived from the dramatic dynamics in the Will/Walter relationship. What kind of heinous crime makes a human being into a human monster? A serial killer is largely viewed as one because they select their victim beforehand and deliberately plan out their crime. But what about a person without a violent past who, in a moment of weakness, where rage got the better of him, suddenly killed, was sickened over it, and experienced nothing but sympathy for the victim afterward? And what about a cop sworn to protect, who is very likely "dirty," and who takes it upon himself to cover up the killing of a fellow officer who died at his own doing -- a person whom he may have wished dead or, worse, would have been willing to see dead if the opportunity had presented itself without any legal ramifications? The film probes the dark side of human nature quite well: it doesn't present comfortable answers but manages to surface a good many disturbing questions. Both men are trapped less by criminal evidence and more by their consciences, with Walter coming off as the better-adjusted of the two because he's come to terms with his fateful action and with himself, while Will keeps trying to see things as being either black or white -- good or bad -- when he's clearly walking a mental tightrope between the two. And it's to the film's credit that the audience gradually stops viewing Will and Walter as either hero or villain, and accepting them for who they are based on their actions -- and inactions. (It also serves up a more haunting depiction of a flawed cop than last year's overpraised The Pledge, which ultimately drowned in a sea of metaphysical vagueness.)

Insomnia serves as a prime example of how thrilling a thriller can actually be when its character base is treated with both depth and importance. When we care about (or can at least identify with) the characters when dangerous incidents do abound, we're all the more caught up because of the dramatic underpinnings giving them weight and immediacy. Director Nolan has not only supplied the action sequences with plenty of full-throttle velocity but a sense of spatial cohesion as well -- we know where the pursuer and pursuee are in relation to one another during the cutting back and forth -- which makes a chase across a logjam of swiftly-moving lumber, for instance, particularly staggering. But he also knows how to imaginatively move the characters around in a non-action scene, keeping the momentum going whether everyone's moving about or standing or sitting totally still; he has enough confidence in his ability to sustain our interest without resorting to showy camerabatics. (Oliver Stone, please take note). Nolan also deserves kudos for a virtuoso job of building tension, letting it percolate, and then building more without ever releasing it -- like Will, we're apprehensively held prisoner in all the doom-laden unpleasantness. It's only much later when Will is allowed to take something of a mental breather, where he confesses to a hotel manager (a touching Maura Tierney) the living hell he's been going through, and she responds with unexpected warmth and compassion. It's the film's most moving scene.

I must confess that when I read of Al Pacino being cast yet again as a cop, I experienced a pang of disappointment. Sure, he was great in Serpico, Sea of Love, and others, but in the '90s he seemed to have run out of invention (exceptions: Carlito's Way and Donnie Brasco), so when he headlined Michael Mann's three-hour crime epic Heat he was gratingly loud and shrill. If Pacino's performances in the '70s were considered groundbreaking both in their intensity and originality, then most of his work since has been more generalized and extroverted, less centered, and, therefore, less memorable; you were always aware you were watching Al Pacino play a character rather than a memorable character played by Al Pacino. But in Insomnia he's recharged himself, summoned up all his thespian powers, and serves up a brave, emotionally devastating portrait of a man who has gotten to the point of wanting to live without actually living, without having to feel the remorse he's unable to shake off. Pacino's playing someone of his own age, and his world-weary, beat-out appearance is perfectly suited to the role of Will. And he's also rekindled his alert reserve, as is on glorious display in the scene where Hap announces his decision to cooperate with IA, and Will bores his eyes into him with such malevolence you swear daggers might spring from them. Even Pacino's trademark shouting tirades come off as dramatically sound this time around. Because Will's nerves always seem to be on the verge of snapping, his verbal outbursts come off as plausibly dire attempts to rid himself of the emotional demons hounding him. This is his most wholehearted screen performance yet: sharply etched, multi-layered, beautifully controlled, and emotionally lucid.

There will undoubtedly be those jeering at the mere thought of Robin Williams playing a killer, and based on his recent string of gutless, unbearably precocious performances in films so saccharine they could have sweetened a dozen English ladies' teas I can't really blame them. Happily, though, he manages to pull himself together and gives his finest dramatic performance since his role as the Russian defector in 1984's Moscow on the Hudson, which was superior to his superlative work two years earlier as the tragic writer in The World According to Garp. Williams doesn't indulge in any cutting-up; he locates and locks onto Walter's emotional core, and stays there. Until the screenplay ultimately betrays him in the final quarter, he does an amazing job of suggesting a sympathetic, downright creditable human being careless enough to get in this predicament but intelligent enough to quickly improvise and stay a step or two ahead of the paid professionals on his tail. And when Williams finally has to spring into action, he's surprisingly lithe and graceful. As for Hilary Swank, who was overrated for her just-passable work in Boys Don't Cry, she's likely to be underrated for her fine work here. She brings compassion and strength to a character required to exude both innocence and decency, two difficult things for an actor to express without venturing into the maudlin, and she pulls it off beautifully, without strain. (And a tip, Hilary: Keep that hair shoulder-length. You look simply fabulous.)

Like most thrillers, however, Insomnia has a tough time wrapping things up, opting to go more of a conventional route rather than an unorthodox one. The last fifteen minutes or so are awfully formulaic, where the three main characters' previous behaviors and actions are chucked aside to get them together for a final shootout, and the one on display here is unremarkable and badly staged. (The only thing that halfway redeems it is having the bleary-eyed Will so strung-out that he literally can't drive or shoot straight.) There are other minor quibbles. The matching of the caliber of the weapon used to shoot Hap is derived from an old case file that's more than a bit too convenient, and there's that old cliche of someone about to be discovered in a room but is saved at the last moment when the person about to open the door is suddenly called elsewhere. Furthermore, the character of Ellie is used as a device to keep the story moving to its disappointing conclusion; we witness the story unfold through Will's eyes about ninety percent of the time, which comes off as entirely appropriate and makes aesthetic sense, so the narrative (but not the assured pacing) snaps whenever we divert over to Ellie's one-person's view. And just maybe it'd have been more interesting if the shooting of Hap were staged so we weren't entirely sure if Will accidentally shot him or not, which would have added another disturbing dimension to the character. As it plays out, however, Will's character ultimately needs to be "redeemed" by film's end, and that's trite.

But the majority of the film is so good these faults hardly take away from it being an impressive, astonishing piece of work. While it's not up to par with two extraordinary films of this year -- The Mothman Prophecies and About a Boy, both of which circumvent convention and embrace the souls rather than the plot mechanics of their stories -- it still serves as that rare thriller that tells a fascinating story with equally fascinating characters with an intelligence that puts enough stock in its audience by charging forth and refusing to spell out story details over and over again and hang easy-to-read emotional labels on the characters for ten-second attention spans. While it eventually settles for the easy way out, it's still to be commended for keeping an ironclad hold on us even when its disturbing implications make us want to look away -- and for placing Christopher Nolan in the top echelon of American directors.

Forget Christopher Nolan's overpraised "Memento" -- this here is the real deal, folks.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5915&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/14/02 14:26:21
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User Comments

9/21/17 morris campbell good script good acting good film IMHO 4 stars
8/29/11 Monday Morning Good story but slow to unfold. Could have cut, like 30 minutes from it. 4 stars
12/06/10 Kyle Amazing film, Nolan's best film except Memento. Far better than The Dark Knight/Inception. 5 stars
10/19/09 sachin Al Pacino's Finest Performance Till Date(2009) 5 stars
11/25/08 Shaun Wallner Thought this was a good film. 5 stars
7/21/08 the dork knight Probably one of the last good movies you'll ever see from Pacino 5 stars
1/18/08 Pamela White great plot and realistic sleep deprivation subplot 5 stars
8/20/07 Bhavesh Good movie 4 stars
7/25/07 Quigley See it just for Al Pacino alone. Nolan's direction is top-notch. It still didn't grab me. 3 stars
4/21/07 Ronin Awesome acting. Script not so great. 4 stars
2/22/07 Weblynx thriller, great acting, i loved it 5 stars
2/08/07 Raph Branca This film came out of left field. Surprisingly great piece of work. 5 stars
7/12/06 free bonus sign up no fine print or wagering sport betting selection free bonus sign up no fine print or wagering 5 stars
4/12/06 anthonyuk superb acting, fantastic 5 stars
10/09/05 Agent Sands Robin Williams steals the whole fucking movie. 4 stars
8/21/05 R.W. Welch Engrossing cop flick tho ending is not quite convincing. Top drawer acting. 4 stars
5/28/05 Gary Surprisingly good-- Great performance by Pacino. Great directors commentary 5 stars
5/27/05 Indrid Cold A little disappointing, but still a meaty, entertaining thriller. 4 stars
9/25/04 NJ Cup Winner 95-00-03 Three Oscar winners make for one entertaining movie that stayed w/me 4 stars
5/27/04 Me Good acting, but it was kind of boring... 4 stars
5/20/04 tatum Good suspenser, film's misleading trailer nothing like the film 4 stars
4/27/04 4x4 Hilary awesome. Pacino OK. Willams spastic. Not bad. 4 stars
1/21/04 fhfj Taut storyline, acting, and direction, though somewhat predictable. 4 stars
12/09/03 Samuel A very good movie Pacino and Williams work well together!! 3 stars
11/14/03 Edith the Maid and Meredith the Mermaid Pacino's worst movie other'n DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, not counting awful cameo in GIGLI. 2 stars
9/14/03 KING EDWARD good stuff - makes me want to strangle a goat, while screaming 'god bless america' 4 stars
5/29/03 abhijeet bhadra It"s informative , should include pictures. 3 stars
5/13/03 Mr. Hat (I'm Back Mo'Fos!!!) Good acting, directing, and kind of a nice story. Not bad. 4 stars
3/09/03 Matt Thiel Nolan's mediocre followup to Memento. Sigh. 2 stars
1/28/03 fraz visually appealing, complex plot and characters, believable acting 4 stars
1/02/03 . Robin Williams was suprisingly good as the psycho! 4 stars
12/03/02 George Jung A shining light in the shit that was the movies of 2002. 5 stars
11/20/02 Phil M. Aficionado Well done except for a few contrivances; An A-/B+ kind of effort. See it. 4 stars
11/10/02 Henk Binnendijk A moody movie exploring the value of police ethics. 5 stars
11/10/02 Daniel Good cast wasted! This yarn is way too predictable. 3 stars
11/05/02 Punk_Ass No real twists or turns. Ending sucked. ok if you need to kill some time 3 stars
10/26/02 Elizaveta Pretty good...Robin Williams should've suffered more 4 stars
10/26/02 Monster W. Kung Awesome. One of the best crime/thrillers I've seen in a long time. 5 stars
10/21/02 Ken The main character died, so it must be good! Boring, boring, boring. 2 stars
10/17/02 Reini Urban not a masterpiece, too olished, but quite okay 4 stars
10/15/02 TwIsTeD Patch Adams Beats Ass 5 stars
9/28/02 Peter Sherlock Very average. Too many inconsistencies. 2 stars
9/25/02 James Renwick Ultimately doesn't work - Dialogue - Dialogue - Dialogue 4 stars
9/10/02 Francofile I'm so sick of Hollywood forcemeat. Is the (excellent) 1997 original too "foreign"!? 3 stars
9/07/02 trumplesneaker fab film in a fab location. it had holes but i can live with them. i like KMG's comment! 4 stars
9/06/02 Matthew Smith an outstanding thriller, taut and terrific edge of seat stuff from start to finish 5 stars
8/18/02 Mr. Hat (I'm Back!) Christopher Nolan is a really good director, and the cast is great. 4 stars
8/12/02 blakers great 5 stars
8/07/02 Tiffany Faye Hawthorne Fancies itself cool for being non-formulaic. But sometimes that's just not so hot! 2 stars
7/01/02 KMG It was boring. Pacino should've just covered the windows! 3 stars
6/29/02 Holland Weeks Effective acting; double plot tension; plausible character complexity 5 stars
6/27/02 Bada Bing Crosby All three stars deliver the goods & director is quantum..funny joke by Katt, too! 5 stars
6/21/02 cleansparks very good movie, pacino is excellent 5 stars
6/19/02 Issec Wang It was good but not amazing. I liked it a lot. Impressive. 4 stars
6/16/02 JO Beyond words...I didn't think anything Al Pacino was in could suck as much as this... 1 stars
6/14/02 Cher Pretty bad acting, decent plot doesn't make up for it 1 stars
6/12/02 Obi Wan Very well done!! I did expect more in the thriller dept though!! 4 stars
6/10/02 spaceworm GODFATHERs apart, Pacino's best work. 4 stars
6/10/02 Coitus For a murder suspense movie, it had a "different angle." Could rent it, and not miss much. 3 stars
6/09/02 BrodieMan Suspenseful and well done. Pacino is awesome ! 4 stars
6/07/02 malcolm how did cute-ass Hillary Swank look so boyish in Boys Don't Cry 5 stars
6/07/02 Brendan Pacino and Williams are fabulous, this film is what a psychological thriller should be 5 stars
6/02/02 Poumpus and better than you I was dissapointed, though the acting and directing were fabulous the movie was dull. 3 stars
6/01/02 Suzz great director, actors, cinematograpy; plot so-so with no surprises 3 stars
6/01/02 Teresa Goes beyond who killed who and why, to who can get away with what! Go See!! 4 stars
5/31/02 Mary Lou Exceptional. For me, Pacino can do no wrong anyway, but this may his best work ever. 5 stars
5/31/02 monica I LOVED THIS MOVIE 5 stars
5/30/02 Janine Lay very boring and no thrills, depressing 3 stars
5/30/02 MyztiQ excellent thriller 5 stars
5/30/02 John Kosanovich Good acting, just telling a story, nothing to experience. 3 stars
5/30/02 davey mac way better than anything else in the theatres lately.... 4 stars
5/29/02 Dr Laura Is A Bitch (Doo dah, doo dah...) Engaging, brilliantly acted, had plot holes. 4 stars
5/28/02 Blackops good acting, good movie. I wonder if some of you go to the movie before you make a comment? 4 stars
5/28/02 ajay loved it. 5 stars
5/27/02 Greyjack Very good film. Pacino in top form (and not over-the-top form). Pleasure to watch. 4 stars
5/27/02 P-Nut Robin Williams should stick to comedy. Pacino proves why he is so overrated. 1 stars
5/26/02 Film Guy Great movie. Williams & Pacino were great. Vindar U moron 4 stars
5/26/02 Nick2k different nolan pace. good though. always interesting. 4 stars
5/26/02 billyoby not memento - very average 3 stars
5/25/02 Blubberbot It was ok. Not good. Not bad. 3 stars
5/25/02 rue the whirl superior to the original in my opinion. 5 stars
5/24/02 frank an excellent psychological thriller 4 stars
5/24/02 The Bomb 69 the original was better, though Williams was a much better bad guy than the original 5 stars
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  24-May-2002 (R)



Directed by
  Christopher Nolan

Written by
  Hillary Seitz

  Al Pacino
  Hilary Swank
  Robin Williams
  Maura Tierney
  Martin Donovan
  Nicky Katt

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