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With: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hillary Swank, Martin Donovan, Maura Tierney
Written by: Hillary Seitz, based on the 1997 screenplay by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and brief nudity
Running Time: 118
Date: 05/03/2002

Insomnia (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Dead Beat

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first thing you'll notice about Christopher Nolan's Insomnia is that it's not nearly as amazing, not nearly as cool as Memento was.

But if you give it a chance, and let it swirl around like a summer snowdrift in your brain a while, you'll see that it's not only a solid, smart and tense thriller, but a film that anyone would be proud to have on his or her resume.

Based on the 1997 Norwegian film written by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg and directed by Skjoldbjaerg, Insomnia stars Al Pacino in a deliriously gripping performance, perhaps his most purely emotional ride since Scarface (1983).

A teenage girl has been killed and her body has been cleaned, her hair washed -- the sign of a serial killer? Pacino plays Will Dormer, a veteran cop called to Alaska with his partner to help out on this grisly murder case, and possibly to prevent more, similar murders.

When we first see Dormer during a bumpy airplane ride, he already looks like a couple miles of bad road. It's so far north that he experiences the "midnight sun" for the first time and has trouble sleeping. Each day he grows progressively more unhinged.

Meanwhile, his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) has been having vague work problems. He wishes to go to Internal Affairs and come clean, but Dormer knows that if he does, they will investigate him as well -- perhaps undoing everything he's ever worked for. This idea, not in the original film, was added by screenwriter Hillary Seitz and makes these characters far more interesting and ambiguous.

Along with a young local cop named Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) who knows Dormer's work and idolizes him, this crack team assembles to look for the killer near an abandoned cabin. But in the thick fog Dormer accidentally shoots his partner. With his dying breath, Eckhart accuses Dormer of doing it on purpose.

Dormer is so exhausted and rattled that even he doubts it was an accident. Worse, the potential killer, a writer named Walter Finch (Robin Williams) has witnessed the crime. In his sleep-deprived haze, Dormer attempts to mess with the ballistics tests to pin his killing on Finch.

Insomnia then becomes a psychological tug-of-war between Finch and Dormer, each with a dead victim under his belt, each a slightly deranged. Finch begins subtly toying with Dormer, and even a standard-issue thriller chase scene -- across a series of dangerously twirling logs floating in a freezing river -- becomes a metaphor for their emotional state.

My favorite bad guys in films are the ones who can sit down to coffee or a drink with the hero -- they're closer to each other than they are to anyone else. In this capacity, Williams gives the finest performance of his career (and, yes, that includes Good Will Hunting). He leaves his schmaltzy eager-to-please-puppy persona behind and plumbs the depths of his soul to find the real pain that drives Finch.

As for Nolan, the filmmaker obsessed with time uses the "midnight sun" to brilliant effect, showing days and nights slipping invisibly into one another and driving Dormer more and more out of his wits. Nolan's direction here is just as finely tuned, just as brilliant as on his previous films, but this time undetectably so. The critics who called him a show-off before will now be forced to eat their words.

Sadly, the film is not perfect. Seitz's script occasionally relies on coincidence, as when Burr finds a telltale newspaper that has fallen behind a cabinet. Indeed, Swank's character, who barely appeared in the 1997 version, sometimes comes across as little more than a device.

But those small gripes aside, Insomnia registers as a superb, intricate, emotional thriller, complete with an ending that compliments the film's intelligence (unlike most other recent thrillers). Still, you might want to bring a cup of coffee with you to the theater, because Insomnia can make you sleepy.

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