When L.A. detective Will Dormer (Pacino) is shuttled off to the wastes of Alaska to investigate the murder of a local teenage girl, he rapidly comes to realise that he is not dealing with a run-of-the-mill killing.
In the dead-end town of Nightmute the sun never sets, and the perpetual daylight prevents Dormer from sleeping. As he struggles with the case, with weariness and with the deadly chess game played by his murderous quarry Dormer links up with an idealistic local detective (Swank) who has studied his famous cases in the City of Angels and is familiar with his methods.
After his critically acclaimed Memento, Christopher Nolan is back to deliver yet another edge-of-the-seat thriller. Working well with Pacino, whose character is an amalgam of the men he played in Sea of Love and Heat, Nolan is also blessed with a magnificently creepy performance from Robin Williams as novelist Walter Finch, the film’s prime suspect. Beautifully underplaying and totally eschewing his regular histrionics in favour of a measured, almost whispered, delivery, Williams doesn’t enter the film until almost an hour has elapsed but the film immediately cranks up a notch. Based on the 1997 Norwegian picture of the same name, and retaining the original script by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg, Insomnia is another cerebral thriller from Nolan and establishes him, at 32, as one of the brightest new filmmakers working today.
Perhaps Nolan’s greatest strength, alongside his stunning talent as a writer, is in wringing extraordinary performances out of actors whose careers have been built on a succession of great ones.
Pacino, who can so often mistake shouting and ranting as heavyweight dramatics, is deliberately low-key and benefits from a powerful ‘mirror’ in the form of Swank who slowly becomes the film’s conscience.
Their scenes together are a marvel: she openly worshipping his Sherlockian detective skills, he awkwardly stepping back in recognition of his own feet of clay and numerous character failings. It is a remarkable coupling, and all the rarer since Pacino generally gives no quarter to his female co-stars.
Williams is a revelation. He works best with directors that edge towards the auteur mentality – Gus Van Sant on Good Will Hunting, Christopher Hampton on The Secret Agent, Peter Weir on Dead Poets Society – but in Insomnia he surely recognised that to overplay would be to ruin a sensational part.
He is, quite simply, superb. And it’s a far, far cry from execrable fare like Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man.
Director Nolan has already been dubbed ‘the new Orson Welles’ by some unimaginative reviewers, but certainly there is something of the genius in his three films so far. Insomnia follows the non-linear fashion of his previous pictures Following, and Memento and works all the better for it.
He has succeeded in remaking an existing European thriller (the original starred Stellan Skarsgård) and making it better and unique. That’s a rare gift, but Nolan does it without fuss.
In short, this is astoundingly good stuff, and the kind of picture you may have to see more than once – not because you don’t get it, just because it’s mesmerising.