Year Released: 2002
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank
(R, 118 min.)
Genre: Mystery and Suspense, Drama
"A good cop can't sleep because he's missing a piece of the puzzle. And a bad cop can't sleep because his conscience won't let him" – Ellie Burr
This taut thriller keeps you on the edge of your seat even while it breaks the rules of its genre. Interweaving complex characters and plot, the nearly flawless film never drops a stitch.
L.A. detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are called up to the little town of Nightmute, Alaska, to help an old friend with a baffling murder. A seventeen-year-old girl has been found beaten to death.
The film opens with an aerial view of the flight in with the two-engine plane just above a forest of ice. His haggard face and raspy voice suggest the flight has taken its toll on Detective Dormer Nevertheless, he wants to see the body right away and without blinking, Dormer notes some clues on the corpse not mentioned in the autopsy report. Her nails have been carefully cut and her hair washed post mortem. We get the idea that he has been doing this stuff so long and so well that he could do it in his sleep.
And not surprisingly, that is exactly what follows, since it is summer there and the sun is up a relentless 24 hours per day. So we abandon the dark of night mood conjured up so much in crime fiction and settle in for an interminable sun.
But the perpetual daylight exacts is own fee. The unremitting sun outlines the dark shades in his hotel room, and Dormer cannot sleep. We catch snatches of conversation with his partner that give us other reasons for this insomnia, too. The two detectives are under investigation by L.A.’s internal affairs, and Dormer’s partner is seriously considering taking an offered immunity deal that could entangle Dormer as well.
The sun may be continuous, but it does not always shine bright either. Fog envelopes their trap for the unknown killer, and he gets away. Dormer pursues him and takes a shot in the mist. But it’s not the killer he has shot, but his partner, who, just before he dies, accuses Dormer of murdering him to keep him from testifying.
Knowing that is how it will look to everyone else as well, Dormer tells everyone that the killer has shot his partner, and then with quiet expertise, rearranges the evidence to make it look that way.
So our cop isn’t exactly the legendary hero young Ellie Barr (Hilary Swank), the idealistic Nightmute police officers thinks he is. But he is not completely dirty either. That core of Dormer's existential anguish is what anchors the film.
The internal affairs investigation is about Dormer planting evidence, evidence against a murdering pedophile that he knew was guilty but would probably walk without it.
And it’s not just his neck and reputation that Dormer cares about. He knows every one one of his cases would become suspect if this breach were to be disclosed. And that would mean the possibility of how many murderers going free?
So we have Dormer trying to track down one homicide while covering up his role in another, accidental as it might be. No wonder the man cannot sleep,
And it gets even more complicated as young detective Barr starts to see flaws in the evidence Dormer has so competently rearranged. But the plot gets even more convoluted when the killer introduces himself to Dormer in a midnight call. The wheedling voice tells Dormer he knows what the young detective has only begun to suspect. He saw Dormer shoot his partner. They both know what it means to kill, he says, trying to draw the Dormer into his maelstrom of moral equivalency.
The final hour of the film ends any whodunit aspects of mystery, as we get to meet the killer in person. But we are even more drawn in as we wonder if his malignancy will infect Dormer as well. Will the L.A detective make a deal with the devil to save his skin? Will he help the killer frame someone else as his payment for keeping quiet?
Pacino does some of his best work here, playing a man in crisis, wrestling with all the repercussions of that first flawed decision to cross the line. It’s a quiet performance with none of the melodramatic excess to which the actor is sometimes prone. Pacino lets his craggy face and haunted eyes do most of the talking for him. There is almost a MacBeth like guilt in his sleeplessness.
Comedy icon Robin Williams brings his cherubic face to become Robert Frost’s “…dimpled spider, fat and white,” a soft-voiced wheedling villain, all the more chilling because of the banality of his evil. Our memories of Robin Williams as the smiling clown put a reflexive chill in our spines here.
Pacino and Robins, each flawed in different ways, provide an engaging character study. We have some philosophical depth here, too, as the film explores the moral repercussions of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. And finally, Insomnia is a very good police procedural that manages to surprise even as it purposely tips its hand. Just when you think you have all the answers, you find out you don’t. A lot like real life, I guess.
Not to miss, even if it’s the second time around. Like a good wine, this one ages well.
There’s not a lot of variety at the Nightmute, Alaska, restaurant, the halibut fishing capital of the world, it seems. The two L.A. detectives are trying to decide among Halibut Calabrese, Halibut Olympia, and the pièce de ré·sis·tance, Halibut Cajun.
But it’s really the conversation with his partner that spoils everything. Hap Eckhart is going to make a deal with L.A.’s internal affairs division, a deal that Al Pacino’s Will Dormer, knows will draw him in, too, and potentially bring suspicion to all the cases he has closed.
“I’ve lost my appetite,” Dormer mutters as walks out without ordering.
Maybe our High Octane Moose Milk Cocktail will tempt him. I’m not sure if it is a cure for insomnia or a morning wake up from a sleepless night.
High Octane Moose Milk Cocktail
2 ounces Birch Syrup Vodka
1 ounce coffee liqueur
Directions: Pour vodka and coffee liqueur over ice cubes, top off with light cream, and pour in a little (or a lot!) of chocolate syrup. Top with whipped cream.