Monday 9 May 2011

Movie Review: Insomnia (2002)

A criminal drama set in the bleak snow-covered Alaskan climate, Insomnia delves deep into the disturbed psyche of its main characters, and in the harsh light of endless white nights, stares at the stark reality of two men grappling with their inevitable fate.

Two Los Angeles detectives, grizzled and legendary veteran Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and the younger and more idealistic Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) travel to the small and remote town of Nightmute, in far northern Alaska, to help investigate the murder of teenager Kay Connell. Local police officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) tags along as Dormer and Eckhart explore the evidence. Dormer has more than one problem, though, as he struggles to get any sleep in a town where the bright sun never sets in summer.

His senses dulled by a lack of rest, Dormer accidentally shoots and kills Eckhart. But with no witnesses to the shooting, Dormer lies and claims that it was Connell's killer who shot Eckhart. Suffering from ever worsening insomnia, Dormer is contacted and taunted by Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a local author of cheesy books. The lonely Finch had befriended the much younger Connell and killed her in a fit of rage. Worse still, Finch knows the truth about Eckhart's death.

With no evidence tying Finch to the Connell murder, Dormer frantically seeks a way to bring Finch to justice, while Burr begins to find holes in Dormer's story about Eckhart's death. As they hurtle towards a final confrontation, neither Dormer nor Finch appear to have much of a future, and after six consecutive sleepless nights, Dormer is beyond desperate to close the case and get some sleep.

Al Pacino allows his eyelids to puff up to the size of pillows as he convincingly portrays a man engaged in a futile fight to sleep, and an equally ineffective effort to delay the end of a distinguished career. Williams has a smaller role, but delivers many long-winded passages that reveal the creepy self-delusion of a serial killer in the making, begging to be caught but conniving to survive all the same. It is difficult to understand what Academy Award winner Swank is doing in the trite role of a wide-eyed rookie officer, but her performance adds little to the movie.

Director Christopher Nolan, working from a Hilary Seitz script inspired by a 1997 Norwegian film, pulls out all the flashy tricks from his bag of brief flashbacks, quick edits, bloody details, and fake images generated by a brain lacking in sleep. He creates an appropriately desolate setting of a small northern town with all the grime and none of the charm of isolation.

Insomnia is about death in many guises, with all the major characters facing an ending of sorts: Eckhart is killed, Burr sees the end of her innocence, and both Finch and Dormer realize that they are at the end of their previous lives, and their futures are intertwined and dependant on each other. That all these endings are accelerated due to days that have no end is just delicious irony.


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