Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Now playing at the Fox Theater, the Riverfront, and 41st Avenue, Insomnia is Christopher Nolan's second movie after his low-budget surprise success, Memento. Visually, the two films are completely different: while Memento had that sepia-toned, choppy editing, claustrophobic feel, Insomnia is all spectacular landscape, magnificent Alaskan vistas that are wide open and, at times, overwhelmingly bleak. At the heart of Insomnia, however, lies a similar dilemma, a kind of moral crisis that throws a character, passionate in his convictions, into self-doubt.
Al Pacino plays Will Dormer (his name has sleep in it-get it?), an LAPD detective who, along with his partner Hap (played by martin Donovan), gets sent to Nightmute, Alaska (more sleep jokes), Halibut capital of the world, to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. They are assisted by the local police, former buddy Nyback (Paul Dooley) and the young idealist Ellie Burr, played by Hilary Swank, fresh out of the academy and as smart as a whip, having studied all of Will's cases.
Early on we learn that I.A. is conducting an investigation of the LAPD (seems like LAPD is always being investigated) and that's why Will and Hap have been sent away. We also know that they may have something to hide, though it's clear that everyone thinks Will is a god in the world of law enforcement. Hap's revelation that he plans to cooperate precipitates the beginning of Will's moral crisis.
Part of what makes this movie so good is that it's got a solid and interesting psychological foundation and a successful and convincing whodunit mystery. Pacino is always a consummate actor, lending a complete and complex inner life to every wizened cop he plays here, Will takes on the dimensions of a Greek tragic hero: he is a good man-perhaps-who makes a terrible mistake that triggers a series of misfortunes. These misfortunes lead him to doubt his own moral character and make us question him as well. Meanwhile, he also plays the part of the super smart detective, drawing us irresistibly with him as he teases out the threads of the murder. Then there's another detective figure, Ellie Burr, his assistant and admirer, who takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of the detective himself (she's a burr in his side, so to speak), and so too plays the part of the audience as we try to understand him.
As all the reviews will tell you, Robin Williams' appearance in the film as Walter Finch is not so memorable. I prefer him in a bad guy role, but the movie goes out of its way to sanitize his motives. One thing his character and the director get right though is the rage and violence that always seems to bubble just beneath the surface of his normally comic and often smug righteousness.
Of course, it's irritating to see movies that insist that cops, especially LAPD, are really upstanding moral citizens who murder someone illegally only when the perp is a true monster-and Insomnia has some of that. But it also complicates that line just enough to set itself a serious notch above the American law-and-order lovefest. This is a man who no longer knows whether he is good or bad-and neither do we.
Finally, the innocent yet intelligent Ellie
guides us through the moral puzzle. She is-like Milton's daughter and all
those girls who devote themselves to the memory of their complicated fathers-a
faithful child. In fact, there are two father-daughter pairs, a good one
and one that is tragically perverted. The moral of the story-for good father-figures
like Will Dormer whose sins will not let them sleep at night-is that you
may not be able to trust your sons but your daughters will never betray
you. For bad daughters, like the teenager whose beaten corpse is
the mystery to be solved, the moral is that not every father deserves your
trust. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the
film gang, this is Carla Freccero.
Copyright Carla Freccero 2002