M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

With Insomnia, indie prince turned Hollywood it-director Christopher Nolan assumes the role of hired-hand with impeccable aplomb and eminent professionalism. His take on Erik Skjoldbjaerg's 1997 Norwegian meta-thriller of the same name often bears the unmistakable signs of screenplay-by-committee and other corporate travesties. But in a pleasant surprise, it often displays the same mnemonic mastery - that ability to manipulate past and present - that made Nolan such an interesting filmmaker in the first place. Its Scandinavian settings transposed to the Alaskan wilderness, Insomnia threatens, in its first hour at least, to amount to little more than pointless rehash. And though it never completely shakes that feeling, it does take a few unexpected turns - some of which are in the original film, some not - that suggest a higher mind at work. In the end, Insomnia is that rare trans-Atlantic cross-pollination that actually succeeds. That we feel at all grateful is less a sign of gifted filmmaking than it is an indication of our collectively lowered standards.

Nominally a murder mystery, Insomnia wastes no time in flouting the rules of the genre. Disgraced LAPD detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is put out to pasture in the fictional Alaskan town of Nightmute where local police have recovered the body of a teenaged girl. Will, a variation on the cop on the verge of retirement, takes charge of the case but finds that concentration eludes him. The internal affairs investigation back home and his partner Hap's (Martin Donovan) intention to squeal loom large in Will's mind, eclipsing the tedium of homicidal detective work. Also looming large is the sun: north of the Arctic Circle, summer means never-ending daylight and for Will, it means one sleepless night after another. His tossings-and-turnings are collapsed into brief, apoplectic montages by Nolan and editor Dody Dorn. They are the staccato punctuation that surround Will's endless days, allowing him to pause momentarily before the next shift begins. On bad "nights," he wonders outside to a world seemingly bereft of civilization. "It feels like the whole planet is deserted," he laments. Like the world of Memento, Nolan's previous film, Nightmute is infected with dreamlike emptiness. And as its sole inhabitant, Will must bear his torture in agonizing solitude.

Pacino manages to create a sympathetic hero out of the murky backstory that the movie hints at but never fully explains. In the original film, actor Stellan Skarsgard cuts a cooler character, an arrogant fashion plate and Swede-in-exile who is simultaneously drawn into and repulsed by the locals. He nearly seduces the victim's best friend during a bit of unconventional questioning, and he has a brief fling with the hotel concierge. Pacino, meanwhile, is rendered both asexual and geriatric. Botox-free, he wears his skin like a rumpled blanket and generously massages the massive bags under his eyes. A more humanistic performance to be sure, but also a safer one: a grandfather gone to seed is easier to like than a cold-blooded sleaze-bag.

As the movie ventures into more ambiguous territory, particularly when Will unwittingly shoots his partner Hap during a botched stakeout, Pacino's and Skarsgard's performances begin to diverge in telling ways. Pacino's Will is racked by uncertainty over his culpability. Did he shoot Hap out of self-defense or out of displaced frustration? His mantra of "prolonging the moment" as a means of isolating, and understanding, the criminal act becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when he finds that he can't stop replaying Hap's death in his head. Past and present merge stylishly to form a nightmarish waking state. Paralyzed by guilt, Will initiates a quickie cover-up by substituting his incriminating bullets with those of the suspected killer whose gun he has recovered. Skarsgard does the same thing in the original, but unlike Pacino's paranoid fumblings, Skarsgard's execution is pure detachment. His affectless Swede somnambulates throughout the movie oblivious to everything, including the murder investigations. Wraith-like in appearance, he automatically succumbs to any adversity thrown in his path. He's a defeated man from birth.

If Skjoldbjaerg's film is a minimalist character study of a passive specter, Nolan's version is a full-blooded examination of a man who refuses to be beaten. Pacino's Will may be a walking basketcase, as his increasingly perplexed team could attest, but there's still some fight left in him, and it gives Nolan's film a distinct American whiff. If nothing else, it's a reassuring odor that only grows stronger with the belated introduction of Robin Williams's prime suspect, a local novelist and apparent chicken hawk named Walter Finch. Less a full-on baddy than creepy doppelganger, Walter latches on to Will through a series of sadistic midnight phone calls. They chat in that cool detective-suspect banter that begins innocently as standard cat-and-mouse play and evolves into something more complex, a fractured interior monologue. With repressed glee, Walter echoes Will's gnawing insecurities, gradually amplifying them, and ultimately exacerbating them. Their long distance S&M relationship is one of the movie's craftier inventions (and one that was absent in the original) but the eventual showdown never feels that long off and when it comes, the movie settles down to more conventional rhythms. There is a chase, a car wreck, a shoot-out, and a hero's ending. Is this all we can expect? Apparently so.

Still, Insomnia never quite sells out. Whenever Hilary Seitz's screenplay threatens to remove the meta from the thriller (by piling on the narrative complications and banal double crossings), Nolan is on hand to weird it all up again. A chase across a logjam turns brutally suffocating when Will falls into the icy waters and the logs above him close in and seal him off in airless, sunless isolation. The scene is allowed to play out for a crucial extra beat and it's more sadistic than anything Williams's character could think up. Another nice touch: Will hallucinates an on-coming truck and swerves to miss only to find himself alone on a barren stretch of highway, not a vehicle but his own in site. But best of all is Hilary Swank's rookie cop who initially fawns over Will but gradually begins to suspect his guilt in the shooting. Projected just a shade too loud, Swank's voice pierces Pacino's semi-conscious haze like a rude alarm clock. Her ubiquity is meant to be a cloying presence - youth chaffing against age - and it dovetails nicely in the pat finale when her figurative maturation re-casts the movie as a cautionary tale for the generations. As for Pacino, he finally does close his eyes in the end, but it's a deceptive calm: he could at any moment awake from his reverie, flailing his arms at no one, stumbling down a road to nowhere.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Warner Bros.
Movie Web site: Insomnia



Photo credits: © 2002 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.