INSOMNIA (2002) 

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Al Pacino
Robin Williams
Hilary Swank
Martin Donovan
Maura Tierney
Nicky Katt
Paul Dooley
Jonathan Jackson

Christopher Nolan



Time: 110 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Director Christopher Nolan switches form from all style – he helmed last years' popular, backwards thriller MEMENTO – to mostly substance in this scorching tale of betrayal, murder and self-deception. Though this is his first studio film, you'd never know it. The joy this film provides is in the intense and subtle performances by two of the film industry's most notorious scene-chewers. Much like his turn in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, Pacino disintegrates before your eyes, partly from his inability to adjust to the White Nights of Alaska, but mostly from the pain of his troubled conscience. His inner torment makes him an easy target for the twisted mental manipulations plagued upon his tired brain by the killer he's been recruited to apprehend.

What surprised me most about this film was that I knew exactly where it was going. What makes it worth seeing is Pacino's deeply moving and powerful turn as a well-regarded cop who's not always behaved within the law. Though this is touted as a thriller, the mystery of the murder is fairly obvious from the get go. Pacino and Martin Donovan play Los Angeles detectives brought to a remote Alaska town not only to solve a brutal murder, but to escape the internal affairs investigation going on in their department. If their names are sullied, all of their past cases will be thrown out of court, setting many murderers free to wreak havoc once more. Something Pacino can not abide. They're in Alaska as a favor to an old friend to help solve the murder of a 17-year-old local girl. However, what starts as an investigation to find a brutal killer, turns into a desperate soul searching journey for Pacino's character.

He's seen this kind of violence many times over his 30 decade career and is soon on the trail of the killer. Unfortunately for him, an accident in the line of duty, soon has him doubting his motivation and his past actions in the name of justice. The fact that he hasn't been to sleep in days doesn't help his state of mind. Neither do the late night phone calls from the young girls' killer, played by Robin Williams. Don't worry, I didn't give anything away. His role in the film is not a secret. This is not so much a who-dun-it, but a why-done-it. Williams character believes he's found a kindred spirit, someone who will understand why he committed such a horrible crime. What he fails to anticipate is Pacino's inability to accept what Williams has done as a viable option to personal pain. Sure, Pacino's character hasn't always acted on the up-and-up, but he's always worked in the best interest of society. Hasn't he?

"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."

By the middle of the film one begins to realize that the murder is a type of MacGuffin in the larger scheme of things. It's the impetus to Pacino's soul searching quest to discover whether the end really justifies the means. Is he a crooked cop if he put away bad guys with manufactured evidence? Did he kill his partner on purpose to save his own reputation or was it just an accident? Hilary Swank's character has a moral dilemma of her own that mirrors Pacino's. Does she turn in a good cop for the death of his partner even though she knows it was an accident? Or let a killer take the rap, since he's guilty of a heinously brutal crime? The core of the film has one asking oneself the question: Would you compromise the truth for the greater good? Swank is the film's moral compass, an intelligent cop who wants to do what's right, while protecting one of her heroes. She is clearly on the same path as Pacino, who learns, in the course of this investigation, that he's not exactly the man he aspired to be.

Since the identity of the killer is fairly obvious from the beginning, what keeps this film interesting, for the most part, is the dynamic between Pacino and Williams. Not since GOOD WILL HUNTING has Williams been so effectively restrained. He's beyond creepy here. Mainly because he's so completely normal. Part of the films' cache is to see him and Pacino act opposite each other. Believe me, it's worth the price of admission. Their acting styles may be wildly different, but Nolan marries them perfectly here. Pacino's intrinsic integrity bounces off Williams inherent wackiness in a wonderfully compelling way. When they're onscreen together you can't take your eyes off them, despite the fact that their actions are nothing new. They give depth, poignancy and intelligence to characters we've seen many times before, making them fresh and interesting.

Nolan's direction also helps in this vein. Though this is obviously a big budget movie, he makes his indie street cred known through camera movement, shot selection and film editing. The audience is brought into Pacino's utter exhaustion through the use of lighting, special effects and good acting. Never has daylight seemed so unforgiving and unsettling. His situation is immediately understandable, since everyone has encountered insomnia at least once in their lives. Though the film is extremely well-crafted, I was really hoping for something more shocking and intriguing than what was delivered. Everyone hit their marks, but no one exceeded my expectations. The story is somewhat weak, but the acting more than makes up for it. I wish Donovan and Tierney had more to do. They have so much talent, but aren't really used to their full potential here. That's left to the three leads, who definitely make the most of their roles.

INSOMNIA is a film that won't change your life, but it is one that will keep you entertained for the duration. Nolan didn't rock my boat with this film as he did with MEMENTO, but he's still on my list of director's to watch. Fans of Pacino should take notice. This is his best performance in a very long time. A solid effort from all involved.

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