Christopher Nolan has made a name for himself crafting an incredibly complex film and presenting it out of order. To "get" Memento requires undivided, committed concentration. Now imagine trying to make sense of it after being awake for six days straight. That's pretty much the idea behind Insomnia, the story of a brilliant LA detective brought to Alaska to unravel the trail leading to the identity of a brutal killer. Unfortunately, lack of sleep is merely a minor problem, compared to the mess Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) has gotten himself into. The man he's pursuing knows his secret and uses it to manipulate him into giving him his freedom.
Light is an integral player in Insomnia. Light, in varying degrees pervades every scene, burning it's way into Dormer's mind... and subsequently ours, as he grapples with his own questions of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, in a land with no night. But is Dormer's inability to sleep a result of the unforgiving, twenty-four hour Alaskan sun, or is it his own conscience that keeps his eyes open? It's interesting to note, that we never see if Dormer sleeps or not his first night in the great Alaskan frontier. In fact, when asked if he slept, he claims he has. It's only after he makes the mistake for which he is blackmailed, that we SEE Dormer's insomnia. That is the kind of subtlety that Director Christopher Nolan has brought to this film. It pervades the entire movie, adding layer upon layer amidst the mind boggling performances of both Pacino and Williams in their respectively muddied good guy/bad guy roles.
As Detective Dormer's state becomes more desperate, so does his need for sleep. As his thinking becomes fuzzier, so does the line over which he may have crossed. Honestly, Pacino always comes off as a little bit tired, so it's no surprise that he could perfectly portray a cop in need of sleep. But the complexity that Nolan manages to weave around what is really such a straightforward cops and killers plot is almost shocking in intensity. I'm hesitant to so readily proclaim him a genius, but ANYONE who can get Robin Williams to so convincingly play a calm and collected character certainly has something going for him.
Though Pacino and Williams are perfection, it's Oscar winning actress Hilary Swank who gives the film a bit of a black eye. Her role is that of an eager young local officer, assigned to escort Pacino around town. To her, he's a god. Her hero. She's studied every move he's ever made. In some sense, Swank gets that right. But she's almost too eager. Too innocent. Too naive. Actually, she becomes just a little bit annoying. Surprisingly, it is she, not Williams who could stand to tone it down a notch or two.
Swank's swill is just a minor quibble in an absolutely stellar film nestled in amongst the breathtaking scenery of Alaska's never ending light. Insomnia, while much more straightforward than Memento, Nolan's gimmicky directorial masterpiece, is an intensely involving film with an intelligent flair. In fact it is SO involving that I actually left the theater literally feeling every bit as fatigued as the sleepless hero on screen. How many movies can do that?