'Insomnia' delights, keeps viewers awake

by Peter Jenks | 5/29/02 5:00am

In the town of Nightmute, Alaska, the aptly named setting of the film, "Insomnia," sleep is hard to come by. Well above the Arctic Circle, Nightmute is a town full of suspicious people either dying to leave or glad that they can finally rest. As local Rachel Clement (Maura Tierney) says in the film, "There are two kinds of people in Alaska -- those who were born here and those who are here to escape something." Everyone in the film seems to be attempting escape, and it is that aspect of "Insomnia" that makes the experience of watching it so unsettling.

In his first film since last summer's "Memento," director Christopher Nolan has created yet another good mystery thriller in "Insomnia," which is a remake of a similar Swedish film.

As famous Los Angeles detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) steps off the plane into Nightmute, he looks very tired. His partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) is a little younger and more resilient. Local detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who has closely followed Dormer's entire career, eagerly greets them on arrival. Dormer and Eckhart are in Nightmute to investigate the brutal beating murder of a 17-year-old girl.

But as the movie progresses, a few complications begin to evolve. For one, Dormer is unable to sleep in the 24-hour daylight of arctic summers. As the story progresses, Dormer spends sleepless nights tortured by his insomnia.

While chasing a suspect, a friend of the deceased who many believe to be the murderer, Dormer ends up on a beach shrouded in fog. In a freak accident, Dormer ends up shooting and killing his partner as a result of his inability to see through the heavy fog. But the internal affairs office in Los Angeles had been trying to cut a deal with Eckhart to convict Dormer of some wrongdoing in an earlier case,t hus providing a motive for what Dormer thought was an accident. Dormer, concerned about his career, lies about something he never did and pins the girl's murder on the suspect he was chasing.

Eventually, Dormer realizes that the suspect was, definitively, the murderer. Shortly after, the suspect contacts Dormer in the middle of the night, empathizing with his lack of sleep. But the two have something in common -- while Dormer has yet to share with anyone his knowledge of the suspect's identity, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), the murderer, is the only witness to Dormer's murder of Hap.

The movie centers on Dormer's moral dilemma. On one hand, he has found and even spoken in person with the brutal murderer who he is trying to find. On the other, turning that murderer in will result in suspicion being cast on himself in Eckhart's death. The interaction of Finch and Dormer is portrayed well.

In many ways, Finch is a mere foil for the part of Dormer that he refuses to acknowledge. For one, Finch is in denial of the murder he committed. "It was just an accident," he claims. Still, Dormer is traumatized by his relationship with Finch. In addition, Dormer's sleepless nights plague his judgement.

"Insomnia" is a good movie in a lot of ways. The acting, especially Swank's, is stellar. The cinematography is stunning as well, simultaneously depicting the epic beauty of northern Alaska and the tortured suffering of Dormer.

Unfortunately, "Insomnia" fails where "Memento" succeeded so brilliantly -- originality. In many ways, this is the same old tortured detective story that we've seen too many times. Every good detective story has a moral dilemma, and Nolan appears to think that a moral dilemma is enough of a plot gimmick to support the entire film. While Pacino's acting almost pulls it off, the film still rounds out just a little hollow. Even worse, the film doesn't have a legitimate resolution to the dilemma, but depends on a meaningless action sequence as the climax and denouement, giving the movie an appearance of having dug itself a plot too deep to fill.

In spite of the weaknesses of the film, "Insomnia" does fully engage the viewer. Dormer is a character worth watching because you don't know if you want to like him or not. And in spite of the plot's somewhat familiar aspects, the film is made well and deserves watching.