I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan, but I somehow missed out on his third movie, Insomnia, back when it came out in 2002. Now that I’ve seen it, I can now say that I’ve seen all but one Nolan movie, the sole movie that escapes me being Following, which he made in 1998 and is way indie. So, needless to say, I’m about to tell you all about how much I enjoyed this movie and why. Turn back if that’s good enough for you and just go and rent the movie. The rest of you, spoilers are coming.
The plot revolves around LA cop Will Dormer, expertly played by Al Pacino, who is sent to Nightmute, Alaska with his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) to investigate a murder. Why do LAPD need to be sent up to wipe up an AK mess? It seems that Dormer planted some evidence to force a conviction, causing Internal Affairs to come down on him and Hap, who presumably do this fairly regularly. Their boss sent them out there to get away from some of the heat. It also seems that Hap is on the verge of turning Dormer in to win immunity for him and his family. Things are tense. They get a lot more tense when Dormer accidentally shoots Hap in the fog and feels he has to cover it up, lest IA come down even harder on his ass.
It’s kind of a birds-eye view of the plot, but I think it’s good enough. The other main characters are played by Hilary Swank (the earnest, honest small-town cop), Maura Tierney (the proprietor of the lodge that Pacino is staying at), and Robin Williams (the murderer). There are a few other important parts, but these three round out the already brilliant cast and really contribute a lot to the movie. Robin Williams can be…overbearing in a lot of his parts, but he rightly plays this one with just the right amount of gravity. His character, Walter Finch, writes crummy detective novels and acts like you’d expect a murderer novelist living in Alaska to act. Quiet, calm, creepy, rational, and slightly manipulative. Swank’s Ellie Burr is just what you think she is. She idolizes Dormer and wants to be big time. She’s a touch too naïve. She can’t quite get the respect she deserves. Maura Tierney’s character just has a quiet dignity to her as you realize that she, too, is in Alaska to escape something, but, guess what, it’s not important what it is.
Insomnia is the movie’s title for a reason. See, in this part of Alaska, the sun never goes down during the summer months. Dormer, already having toruble sleeping due to his IA-related stress, is troubled even further by the perpetual daylight, causing him to go for six straight days without sleeping. While Nolan uses this to some effect, cinematically, I think that he could have gone much further with artistically expressing the exhaustion and stress caused by Dormer’s affliction. Some might argue that this would take away from the strength of the narrative and make it into a gimmicky movie, which is possibly why Nolan did not do this, since it immediately followed Memento.
Light plays a strong symbolic significance, as you might expect, standing in for the pervasive truth, while the fog goes and represents the lies and Dormer’s misdeeds. Since all of the movie takes place in the light, one would think that there would be no suspense or danger, but the exhaustion of Dormer is so well-represented and Alaska is so empty most of the time that there is actually an acute sense of claustrophobia in some scenes. One particular standout is when Dormer gets trapped underneath logs floating down a waterway. The logs keep him underwater and there is real fear from the lack of air combined with one of the few instances where light becomes scarce in the movie.
Nolan did a fantastic job with this movie, as he always does, but I can’t help but feel that this movie was a little too safe, especially considering some of the daring narrative choices that he’s made with Memento, The Prestige, and even The Dark Knight. I’m actually kind of surprised that this movie didn’t come before Memento, because of how normal it seems. That’s not to say that it’s bad, it’s definitely a top-notch, well-acted crime drama that’s worth watching. Rent it or buy it if you can.