“There are two kinds of cops who can’t sleep: good cops, because they’re haunted by holes in the puzzles, and bad cops, because their conscience won’t let them.”
“Insomnia” is Chrisopher Nolan’s follow-up to “Memento” and, initially at least, it couldn’t be a more different picture. While Nolan’s breakthrough indie flick was unlike anything we’d seen before, his first studio movie is a classic cop story. Al Pacino stars as Will Dormer, a legendary LAPD detective who is sent to the small town of Nightmute, Alaska with his partner (Martin Donovan) to assist the local police with the investigation of the murder of a 17 year old girl. Her abusive boyfriend is the main suspect, but Dormer is not buying it. The corpse was too carefully “cleaned” for this to be the work of a hot-headed young punk. The killer, Dormer suspects, would have to be older, smarter… A serial killer? That’s what we’re thinking, as the film goes through the same paces early on as “The Silence of the Lambs”, “Se7en” and countless lesser imitations, with the cops inspecting the victim’s bedroom, talking to her friends, supervising the autopsy, trying to figure out the whys and hows.
Yet before long, we discover that this isn’t that film. First, the Alaskan setting gives a nearly surreal feel to the film, especially with how in summer the sun never sets, not even at night. This plays into the second twist, which is that Dormer can’t sleep. Because of the “white night”, but mostly because of what’s said in the quote above. Not the “holes in the puzzle” part, this is soon not a problem, as Dormer is told exactly what happened by the killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams). It’s Will’s conscience which is bugging him. As it turns out, the real reason he was sent up here was to get away from Internal Affairs. Dormer is not a bad cop but… As we follow him on this case, we can see that he sometimes work into grey areas to get what he wants. I don’t want to go into specifics, so let’s just say that mistakes are made and that by trying to cover them up, Dormer “loses his way” even worse. This puts him in a situation where he can’t even go after the killer after he confesses because Finch knows incriminating things about him, too.
This is where “Insomnia” becomes fascinating, as the cop and the murderer find themselves connecting. Neither is all good or all bad, both are intelligent but struggling with morality, and both are insomniacs. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but this makes for one ambiguous, often riveting cat-and-mouse game. Nolan interestingly plays with the look of the film. While very realistic at first, with natural lighting and no cinematic flourishes, the form of the film gradually comes undone, as if we were sharing Dormer’s lack of sleep. I’ve gone many days without sleeping myself, and you do start seeing and hearing things. You get to a state where while you can’t fall asleep, you’re never fully awake either. It can be scary, and it comes through in the way Nolan crafts the film.
Al Pacino gives a solid performance in the lead, convincingly expressing how restless his character becomes. He is not as over the top as he’s often been lately, and that’s a good thing. That’s even more of a relief as far as Robin Williams goes. After being at his obnoxious worst in the unwatchable “Death to Smoochy”, here he’s disturbingly calm and polite. This is the most gentle killer you could ever meet! Hilary Swank also does good work as a young cop who seems naïve but ends up being the moral centre of the story. This isn’t a classic cop movie after all…