Once again, Nolan delves deeply into a character's experience so we can share viscerally in the protagonist's confusion. And equally, we find ourselves pawns in his hands, his control of the movie and our response to it is nothing short of masterful. While one good film could be a mere fluke, "Insomnia" offers tangible evidence that Nolan could be the real thing, a creative and commercial filmmaker.
For his second effort, Nolan has chosen to remake an obscure Norwegian thriller. Although "Insomnia" is more traditionally structured than "Memento," Nolan has fashioned a probing psychological study of a deeply flawed cop. And in that role, Al Pacino gives one of his best performances in years.
Set in the land of the midnight sun, the Alaskan wilderness where night never falls, "Insomnia" follows two LAPD homicide detectives, Will Dormer (Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), who are called in to help with a murder investigation. In the midst of an internal-affairs investigation at home, Dormer is more than happy to fly to the aid of local detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). The case is beyond Burr's realm of experience; it seems the killer not only brutally beat to death a 17-year-old girl, but also carefully washed her hair and clipped her nails, effectively leaving behind nary a hint of physical evidence.
The vexing case, coupled with the incessant daylight, soon becomes a metaphor for Dormer's physical and spiritual fatigue. As the investigation grows more complex and disturbing, Dormer begins to come apart at the seams. We can see in his tired eyes and haggard face that he no longer trusts his own judgment. When a stakeout leads to another killing, Dormer finds himself trapped in a psychological game of cat and mouse with a famous mystery writer.
As Dormer's No.1 suspect, Robin Williams crafts a chilling portrait of an arrogant, diabolical killer. It's giving nothing away to reveal that his character, Walter Finch, is indeed the culprit. Although Finch never achieves the stature of a truly memorable villain, Williams captures his hair-trigger, clenched demeanor, giving us a shuddering sense of repressed evil. Much better here than in the dismal "Death to Smoochy," Williams does his best to rise to Pacino's level. For the most part he succeeds, with much of the credit going to Nolan's incredible talent for pulling understated yet explosive performances from his actors.
Nolan also draws the best from his supporting cast, in particular a brief but memorable scene involving "ER" star Maura Tierney. Sharing a lodge room with Pacino, Tierney is given one of the most difficult scenes to pull off "the realization scene" that is so vital to the success of a thriller.
"Insomnia" is a thrilling heir to Nolan's impressive feature debut "Memento." In that outstanding first work, Nolan made us witness to a character's confusion about his ability to survive and solve a murderous puzzle. With "Insomnia," Nolan once again puts us inside that unnerving confusion, but with a twist. Nolan and Pacino keep us off-balance, and we're never quite sure if we're watching a good cop go bad or a bad cop making good on paying for his sins. As Dormer teeters on the edge, so do we, and that's what makes this murder mystery so much more than a sleepy little summer thriller. S