Main cast: Al Pacino (Detective Will Dormer), Martin Donovan (Detective Hap Eckhart), Hilary Swank (Detective Ellie Burr), Paul Dooley (Chief Charlie Nyback), Nicky Katt (Fred Duggar), Maura Tierney (Rachel Clement), and Robin Williams (Walter Finch)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Being one of the great unwashed when it comes to movie-watching, I have not watched the 1997 Norwegian movie on which this 2002 American Insomnia is adapted from. I do understand from those that have watched the Stellan Skarsgård vehicle that the original Detective Will Dormer is a darker, even nastier version than Al Pacino’s. Among other thing, Mr Skarsgård’s character molested a teenage girl in that 1997 movie. Mr Pacino’s Dormer offers this girl a loud but moralistic diatribe instead.
This is the biggest problem with Insomnia, as written by Hillary Seitz based on the original Norwegian script. Mr Pacino does an incredible job as the increasingly conflicted Will Dormer, but the movie doesn’t dare to actually push the envelope. It does a good job making me believe that it does but once the movie is over and I reflect on it even a little, its illusion of daring risk-taking crumbles too easily. I don’t expect every movie to take risks and push envelopes, but this movie pretends to do so only to resort to conventional resolutions typical of a formulaic blockbuster from Hollywood, and that is what disappoints me in this otherwise very watchable movie. That, and the stunt casting of Robin Williams as the killer William Finch.
Set in Alaska where the midnight sun is in full effect as it was in Norway, Detectives Will Dormer and Hap Eckhart arrive to help the local law enforcers to solve the murder of a teenage girl. What seems to be a simple and straightforward serial killer case is complicated when Will accidentally and fatally wounds Hap in a chase scene. Dormer, over the years, has become more and more affected by his job at arresting the worst of humanity, and in his last case, he fixed matters so that his suspect was incriminated for the rape and murder of a little boy. His instincts, as he would tell his innkeeper Rachel, tell him that the suspect did it, and over the years, he has little to doubt his instincts. The end justifies the means, surely that should be the way?
The Department of Internal Affairs however is not on the same wavelength as Dormer, and Hal has agreed to testify against Domer to save his own career. Now the Department suspects that Hal’s death may not be that accidental, and now Dormer has to try and cover up his shooting of Hal (no one witnessed the shooting and Dormer blames it on the killer they are chasing) while trying to solve the case. Unfortunately, his attempt to change the bullet that killed Hal is witnessed by the killer himself, and now the killer contacts Dormer because he thinks that they are buddies that are in the same situation, and also, William Finch wants Dormer to help him avoid arrest. Poor William Dormer is trapped. And to make things worse, he is becoming more and more unstable in the six days that this movie takes place because he is just not able to sleep, thanks to the sun that never goes down.
Insomnia is more of an internal psychological thriller than a simple manhunt movie, and as I’ve mentioned, Mr Pacino is just the right man to play Dormer, with his charisma and his hangdog tortured expression that grows more and more manic as the days pass. Even when he’s at his lowest, he is still a sympathetic character, because in a way, he is just a good man trying to do his job. It is only that he is slowly becoming a vigilante, disillusioned by the red tape and the technicalities that let a perverse and brutal killer walk free. But this movie tries too hard to make my decisions regarding Dormer for me. Hillary Swank plays the idealistic Alaskan detective that hero-worships Dormer only to lose her idealism at the end of the movie. I like how she infuses some lighter side of human nature in this movie’s dark atmosphere, but by the end of the movie, she has become the filmmaker’s soapbox where Dormer is concerned, saying unforgivably corny lines like, “A good cop can’t sleep because he’s missing a piece of the puzzle and a bad cop can’t sleep because his conscience won’t let him.”
Likewise, the resolution of the movie elicits a groan of disappointment from me. For all her initially strong female traits, Ellie Burr ends up playing the typical damsel-in-distress and all grey moral issues in this story is wiped clean.
I wish Robin Williams isn’t cast as the killer. This man has been so typecasted that, like Tom Hanks, he cannot carry off certain roles anymore, and a psycho is one of them. Mr Williams is not great enough an actor to make me forget that he’s Robin Williams. He’s as bad as the name “Dormer” for the hero and the hero’s final line in this movie when it comes to the movie being too self-conscious about itself.
Nonetheless, while the script doesn’t do the cast any justice, fine performances by Mr Pacino and Ms Swank, and Christopher Nolan’s ability to bring out the claustrophobic sense of suffocation experienced by Dormer as he becomes more and more trapped in his problems make Insomnia a gripping thriller with substance that goes beyond the usual Hollywood lightweight fluff. It may think of itself more highly than it actually is, but there’s no denying that it is still a solid, enjoyable, and gripping movie.