As someone who suffers from it on occasion, I feel for Will Dormer, the LAPD detective played by Al Pacino in Christopher Nolan's suspense thriller Insomnia. We who count sheep know that, after several nights of staring at the ceiling, the eyes turn to mush, lose their ability to focus. We've felt our minds slip off the tracks, veering between mania and depression. We've watched our memories go and the hallucinations come. We've taken comfort in the notion that just because somebody's following us doesn't mean we're paranoid. Then the somebody following us turns out to be a street sign. In short, we've been there. The difference is that we didn't have to solve a murder.
Dormer ' from the French dormir, to sleep ' does. Along with his younger partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), Will has been sent to Nightmute, Alaska, the "Halibut Fishing Capital of the World," to figure out who pulverized a 17-year-old local girl, then scrubbed the body (and clipped the fingernails) before dumping it in a landfill. For the veteran cop, it's a rather routine case. At least, it would be if Will and Hap weren't dodging an Internal Affairs investigation back in Los Angeles and if Nightmute weren't experiencing around-the-clock sun. Early in the investigation, on what appears to be a bright sunny morning, someone announces it's 10 o'clock...at night.
Like Nolan's previous film, the mind-blowing Memento, Insomnia wants to take us deep inside a head that isn't functioning properly. When the movie opens, Will is a consummate pro, poring over the victim's corpse like a blind man reading Braille and setting a trap for the killer that might have caught him if a blanket of fog hadn't moved in. Instead, Hap takes a bullet to the chest, a bullet fired from Will's gun, presumably at the killer. But did it hit Hap accidentally or accidentally on purpose? Hap was prepared to cut a deal with Internal Affairs, we've learned, a deal that could have spelled the end of Will's career. Maybe Will shot him in cold blood. Or maybe Will's unconscious did it.
The thin blue line between cop and con has been traced many times before, but Nolan and scriptwriter Hillary Seitz, adapting a 1997 Norwegian film starring Stellan Skarsgard, don't trace the line so much as hover near it. They like it blurry. And Pacino is therefore the perfect guy to have around. With eyes that are like dark pools of sadness, he radiates both innocence and guilt. "This guy crossed the line, and he didn't even blink," Will says about the killer, but he could be talking about himself, having crossed a line of his own back in L.A., albeit not without blinking. The thing is, blinking becomes increasingly difficult when you haven't slept for days.
Keeping in mind all those words the Eskimos have for snow, Nolan and his cinematographer, Wally Pfister, have allowed the Alaskan landscape its beauty while underlining its element of threat. Mountains loom over the town like a jury of God's peers, and on the plane ride in, the glaciers scrape the sky in shades of white, black and blue. It's a heavenly, hellish world, this Land of the Midnight Sun. And the filmmakers split it into light exteriors and dark interiors ' the chiaroscuro of good and evil, only in reverse. Like a vampire, Will tries to block out the light pouring through his motel window, but to no avail. In Nightmute, there's nowhere to hide.
Not that Robin Williams doesn't try. Perhaps sensing that Mrs.-Doubtfire-as-serial-killer is an idea that might take some getting used to, Nolan keeps Williams offscreen most of the time. Indeed, much of Williams' performance is literally phoned in as Walter Finch, a mystery writer who knows about murder investigations, gets a game of telephonic cat-and-mouse going with Will. Even when in front of the camera, Williams is more enjoyable than one might have imagined. Usually, when trying to play serious, he strips away his personality, lying there like a puppet whose strings have been cut. Here, he leaves just enough to convey Walter's struggle to be a normal person.
Williams doesn't sink the movie, but he doesn't take it anywhere special either. Unfortunately, this throws off the balance of power. Will and Walter are supposed to be each other's alter ego ' "partners," as Walter proposes when he realizes that Will has almost as much to hide as he does. And Nolan does a good job of bringing out how they're both caught in the same situation, trying to clean up messes they hadn't intended to make. But Pacino is a pro playing a pro, and Williams is, if not an amateur, then a comedian sent to do a tragedian's job. Walter should matter more.
And so should Insomnia. Memento was such a cinematic tour de force, telling its story backwards so as to inflict on us the same short-term memory loss its main character was suffering from, that anything would seem like a disappointment, despite Insomnia's Hollywood-size budget. Nolan spent the money well; the scenery is quite chewable, and Pacino all but licks his chops when he gets off the plane. But the Norwegian original looked almost as good at a fraction of the cost. And it allowed its cop to veritably wallow in sleaze, shooting a dog and then slicing it open to retrieve the spent bullet, which he planted as evidence. Will shoots an already dead dog.
What Insomnia needs is a little sleep deprivation of its own ' a sense that it, too, might slip off the tracks, spin out of control. Although Pacino delivers a modulated performance, he keeps it within a narrow range; Will arrives looking exhausted. And you can feel the movie letting up just when it should be getting down, in the big action sequences. Still, Nolan's editor, Dody Dorn, cooked up this wonderful device of cutting away from something right before we expect him to; it leaves us feeling pleasantly disoriented, as if we're stuck in fast-forward. I only wish Insomnia could have done for fast-forward what Memento did for rewind ' given us something to lose sleep over.