Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002)


Al Pacino (Will Dormer), Robin Williams (Walter Finch), Hilary Swank (Ellie Burr). Screenplay by Hillary Seitz. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rating: 15. Running time: 118 minutes.

What a poor, poor soul. Will Dormer must be the most troubled detective in history, and as him Al Pacino gives one of his most powerful performances, rivaling every single one of his roles prior to this. The setting is a desolate part of Alaska that’s whiter than white, and at this time of year it stays that way 24/7. 3am is as bright as 3pm. The focus is on what recently happened here: a local girl’s body turns up battered, bruised and dead on a garbage site. Dormer is drafted in from LA to help them sort it out.

He’s stupidly sharp, almost omniscient. It might be a cliché for a detective to see a dead body and infer a million things immediately, but that’s exactly what Dormer can do, and he does it with impeccable reasoning. He’s been around. When finally coming face to face with the killer (a timid, terrified Robin Williams as Walter Finch), he snarls: ‘you’re about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fucking plumber.’ He also undoubtedly knows how to rattle people, and he can talk the talk that makes you talk too.

Only Pacino could pull this off, and by ‘this’ I mean the lines and the look. His eyes so deep and drowsy, soon to get worse from his inability to sleep up there; his grimy, rotten, worn out hands and fingernails that say so much about what he’s spent his life doing. He cuts a tired yet solemn figure, and things get worse when, on the verge of capturing Finch, confusion in the fog leads him to shoot his own partner in the investigation.

The problem is that back in LA, investigations are going on into allegations that Dormer had planted forensic evidence to nail some of the suspects in his earlier cases. His partner that he accidentally shoots was first in line to testify; there’s no way they would buy the truth. The girl’s murderer sees it, and now the most horrid of tensions arises in which Dormer can only deliver justice by capturing a man that will also send him down with him.

It’s from here that Insomnia unfolds, with Dormer being driven ever closer to senility by the mind games and threats of the man he is supposed to be chasing. The blackmail just keeps intensifying in depth, and Dormer ends up facing situations and choices it even pains us as viewers to imagine facing ourselves. His commitment to law enforcement is truly tested and twisted. He’s driven completely crazy, testified to by his ever degrading appearance, his quiet but significant hallucinations, and even a little homage: when Dormer nearly runs a woman over, it’s so clearly reminiscent of Taxi Driver. Whether Dormer or Travis end up crazier is a genuine debate to be had.

One scene, towards the end, injects so much sympathy and completely lucid understanding into his situation that we are left not knowing what to feel. He confesses to a woman in the hotel he had been staying at that he had planted evidence, to help the cases against his suspects. Not because he wanted to wrap it up and move on, nor because he just suspected them sufficiently to justify it. His reason was that he knew the people he came across had committed those heinous crimes. A jury may not be able to spot it, but his job is to spend his life identifying such people. If this came out, those killers would be back on the streets. But Dormer’s choice ends up being that, or allowing an innocent man in Alaska to join them, just because of how he’s forced to let Finch call the shots.

It’s unclear what drew Nolan to this project. Whether he just wanted to remake a movie and get practice in pure filmmaking after Memento whilst he worked on plots for the future, I’m not sure. But, in a way, Insomnia is in line with his seeming obsession with mysteries and characters who have warped perspectives. It’s also pretty damn stunning that this is his least known film when, for any other director, it would be nothing short of a breakthrough.

But soon after the credits roll up, you’ll find your thoughts not being about the quality of the filmmaking, nor about the crime that Insomnia primarily evolves around. Instead, your thoughts will return to Dormer, and you’ll think once again: what a poor, poor soul…

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