Insomnia (2002)

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Hillary Seitz

Christopher Nolan is a director that has made a huge impact not only in film over the past decade, but on popular culture. Everybody knows him for successfully rebooting the Batman series, which has drawn millions and, in fact, over a billion dollars worldwide. His style is slick and his vision is imaginative, which could best be exemplified with his 2010 film Inception. But before his massive success of the late 2000s, Nolan was a director to be reckoned with already, a name to watch. With 2000s Memento and this film, a remake of a Norwegian film of the same name, Nolan was already well on his way to making a name for himself.

And he attracted a couple big stars for his particular project, Al Pacino and Robin Williams. Pacino plays Los Angeles police detective Will Dormer, who has been sent to small town Alaska along with his partner (Martin Donovan) to solve a mysterious murder of a young girl. He is met there by a young, fresh out of the academy police officer (Hilary Swank), who guides him around the case. But when a break is made in the case, the suspect escapes in the cover of a fog and Dormer mistakenly shoots his partner, which sets him off into a downward spiral of trying to cover it up for fear of Internal Affairs and for the paranoia of the insomnia that comes from 24 hours of light in the picturesque Alaskan summer. Dormer takes local crime author Walter Finch (Williams) with him to help spin the mystery.

Immediately the film struck with its sense of mood and setting, which was well sustained throughout the film. When it comes to crime mysteries, one mostly thinks of night time murders and dark back alley dealings, but what happens when you change that setting to a town that never gets dark? The 24 hour light is a great place to set a film like this, along with it being an innocent, remote Alaskan town. Nobody is evil enough to have done it, so nobody is a suspect, but someone must be guilty. Perhaps what is most surprising is how the film is more about solving the mystery around Detective Dormer than it is about solving the murder of the young girl, and casting Pacino in that lead role is a strong choice.

Pacino, like a lot of his work, is big enough to make a scene anywhere he goes. But he is also accomplished enough to play some really nice understated scenes, like the one near the end with the lodge manager, played by Maura Tierney. It is also nice to see Robin Williams in a role that makes him out as the bad guy. It goes against the grain of what he has been known for. It is like when Tom Hanks went bad for his 2002 role in Road to Perdition. I have always been a fan of Hilary Swank as well and she is solid as the young cop. Nicky Katt as the local police detective gives a good performance as well, but this is really Pacino’s movie to be had. His character gets all the attention and development while everyone else, even Williams’ Finch is shallow and there to serve the story of Will Dormer. But this is less of a problem when Dormer’s story is as interesting as it is.

But I keep going back to the mood and setting. The scene in the fog is the perfect example of how this film secretly grips you and does not really let you go until the final scene. You can see just far enough ahead of you to make out what is in front of you, but not far enough to be able to tell how it will end up. You see things, hear things that may not be there, or not from where you think they are. Left as an island, on your own, awake in a town with no darkness at its darkest hour, You can’t help but make some questionable decisions, even if they are done with the right intentions. The film is not perfect, and it is nowhere as big and ambitious as Nolan’s more recent films, but it proves Nolan as a filmmaker with a vision and a direction. Insomnia is a good movie, an exciting and tense thriller whose mood is complimented so well by its setting.


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