directed by Christopher Nolan
(Buena Vista, 2002)

"A good cop can't sleep because a piece of the puzzle is missing, and a bad cop can't sleep 'cause his conscience won't let him," says Will Dormer, Los Angeles detective extraordinaire. So what's giving Dormer Insomnia?

Is he worried because he's having trouble catching the killer of a high school girl in Nightmute, Alaska, or does it have something to do with that Internal Affairs investigation back in L.A.? Or is it the midnight sun in Nightmute, self-described halibut fishing capital of the world? Or that attractive young policewoman (Hilary Swank) who's been assigned to work with him? Or is it: E) All of the above?

There's enough happening in Nightmute to keep just about everyone up 24 hours a day. But only Dormer (Al Pacino) seems to be suffering from sleeplessness.

He looks a bit tired from his very first appearance, peering out of the windows of the small plane flying him and his partner (Martin Donovan) across Alaska's frozen wastelands to Nightmute, where it touches down in the town's river port. Losing the suspect he's so carefully set a trap for doesn't help things -- especially when he shoots and kills his own partner in the ensuing chase.

Insomnia is the work of director Christopher Nolan, whose previous film, Memento, set some kind of a record for creating loose ends. Unlike Memento, a tale revealed in reverse by a man who claims to have little or no memory, Insomnia is relatively straightforward. And yet it's almost as baffling, and no less mystifying.

Dormer, who's already worried about that Internal Affairs probe dogging him back in L.A., doesn't help things when he decides to blame the elusive murder suspect for his partner's death, especially when he learns that there was a witness to the shooting: the suspect himself.

What emerges, then, is a high-stakes game of chicken between Dormer and his suspect, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a detective fiction writer who suggests that he and Dormer should become "partners," each helping the other make his false case, and letting others take the fall.

That's a far-fetched premise for a film, but Nolan makes it work, in part by assembling an unforgettable series of images, in part by coaxing from his cast some beautifully underplayed performances.

Pacino is at his quiet best as Dormer, a detail man who finds it's much easier to miss things when you're the mouse instead of the cat. As tired as he looks in the opening reel, he's at his strung-out best by closing credits, looking more like John Carradine in The Unearthly than any heir to any godfather.

And Williams is even more subtle as Finch. Rarely does he raise his voice. Even his body language is quiet. Whether he's the cat or mouse, he rarely makes a move. It's the Williams of Good Will Hunting, but with a murder rap on his record and the look of a repeat offender in his eyes.

Together they have an odd chemistry, almost from the moment Finch eludes Dormer in the misty hillsides surrounding the old mining shed where Dormer set his trap. Both are haunting figures, and Nolan's images of them moving blindly, stealthily through the fog bring back memories of Roman Polanski's Chinatown at its best.

Even more powerful is Finch's flight across a river full of logs and Dormer's amateurish attempts to keep up with him, all leading to an underwater segment that's guaranteed to leave you gasping for air.

Best of all, Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister capture all of this in the pale glow of the 24-hour sun. This casts everything in a strange light, accentuating Dormer's mental disintegration and giving Finch an added touch of pathology.

And then there's the landscape itself, both the Yukon wilderness and the seedy towns that dot it. Nolan, who filmed in both Alaska and British Columbia, got it right here. This is no Northern Exposure town, which always struck me as more Vermontish than Arctic. These are 20th-century frontier towns: one step above the trailer park -- one small step.

It's clear that Nolan is a man of few words. Fortunately, all of them are worth repeating.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 14 June 2003

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