(director: Christopher Nolan; screenwriters: Nikolaj Frobenius/Erik Skjoldbjærg/Hillary Seitz; cinematographer: Wally Pfister; editor: Dody Dorn; music: David Julyan; cast: Al Pacino (Will Dormer), Robin Williams (Walter Finch), Hilary Swank (Ellie Burr), Martin Donovan (Hap Eckhart), Maura Tierney (Rachel Clement), Nicky Katt (Fred Duggar), Paul Dooley (Chief Charles Nyback), Jonathan Jackson (Randy Stetz), Larry Holden (Farrell); Runtime: 118; Warner Bros.; 2002)
“If you saw the Norwegian version there’s no compelling reason to see this weaker one, except this one is flavored as an American experience and is so gorgeously filmed.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A remake of the 1997 Norwegian psychological noir crime thriller that starred Stellan Skarsgard, but there’s nothing significant it adds to that film to warrant the remake. This Insomnia is a mainstream film that director Chris Nolan (Memento) made into the Al Pacino show but failed to keep the same blurred morality battle going in a credible manner and reduced the crime to simple terms. It’s entertaining and comes with Alaska’s beautiful scenery substituted for the Norway landscape. Cinematographer Wally Pfister did a grand job filming all the lush vistas and vast empty summery spaces of the desolate region. It’s still a fine film but not original, complex enough, or filled with any surprises. It also wasn’t as intellectually sound as the former.
Two partner cops from Los Angeles’s Robbery/Homicide unit, supervisor Detective Will Dormer (Pacino) and Detective Hap Eckhart (Donovan), are both under investigation by Internal Affairs. Hap is prepared to rat out Dormer in a plea bargain that will cover his ass and let Dormer fend for himself. They are sent by their boss at the request of an old friend from the LAPD, who is now the local police chief (Dooley), to supervise the inexperienced local cops who are investigating the brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl in the rural Alaskan town of Nightmute. The girl’s hair was washed and body scrubbed and her nails cut; she was found at the town garbage dump.
The weary burned-out Dormer is haunted by his guilt of planting evidence to convict a child murderer who otherwise wouldn’t have been convicted. He’s tired from lack of sleep and exhausted from thinking about the touch holes who work in Internal Affairs, and how they will ruin him and how many murderers he put in jail will now go free because of their phony moralistic action. He has no respect for I.A. because they don’t know what it’s like to be a detective and track down a pervert murderer.
Upon the detective’s arrival by private plane, he’s greeted by an eager woman detective who hero worships him and read all his crime cases, Ellie Burr (Swank). Dormer is flattered by her wide-eyed approval of him, the only time he smiles while in Alaska.
As soon as Dormer gets his hooks on the case, there’s no doubt he will get his man–he’s that tough-minded of a cop. He questions the vic’s high school boyfriend, Randy (Jackson), who was abusive and was seeing her best friend on the side. The surly teen mentions that he was upset because she was seeing a mysterious stranger she would not name, who gave her designer dresses and jewelry. In the vic’s knapsack found near the crime scene and in her room, there are signed books by a hack crime writer Walter Finch (Williams).
Dormer sets a trap for the killer by announcing over the radio he left something behind in a knapsack, but there’s a tunnel in their location which allows the killer to escape. In the fog, Dormer accidentally kills his partner and decides to cover it up to make it look like the killer did it. Troubled by all that is on his mind and unable to sleep as the Alaskan summer means it remains light for 22 hours of the day, Dormer is further tortured by too much light and by a sense that he wants to sleep forever.
The killer relates to Dormer and believes they both killed accidentally and can help each other by framing Randy. The killer saw Dormer shoot his partner, and the two engage in a cat-and-mouse game as he calls Dormer and the two arrange a meeting in public aboard a ferry. The payoff is not to learn who the killer is, but how Pacino acts when faced with letting this wormy pervert go in order to safeguard his career and reputation. As a subplot, Swank also discovers Pacino killed his partner and is faced with the same question he is of how to handle that uncomfortable situation.
Pacino looks haggard and driven to the edge because of his insomnia, as he seems to be getting worse as the investigation continues–he loses his concentration. He gave the part just the right flavor of melancholy and the hope that he can keep his dignity despite his faults. But as good as Pacino was, he couldn’t hide how empty his role was. That he was doing dirty things so that in the end good would triumph, seemed a pat way of dissecting his character without giving him more of a personality or more depth. Robin Williams moves easily away from his loud and usual ego-driven comedy roles, and plays the killer with restraint. This allows his character to be developed without his usual smug stance, but unfortunately we are loaded down with too many answers as to what this lonely and desperate man is capable of doing. The filmmaker gave the viewer no chance to figure it out for themselves, as the viewer was led by the hand until he saw the killer served up in trite psychological labels. Swank moves from a one-dimensional goody-goody detective who lacks experience both in life and on the job, to one who matures and must decide for herself what is wrong or right. Her last lesson from Pacino sets her free to become a better detective. She’s the only one who changes for the better, but she forces the film to have a Hollywood safe ending instead of the gritty ending it deserved.
If you saw the Norwegian version there’s no compelling reason to see this weaker one, except this one is flavored as an American experience and is so gorgeously filmed.
REVIEWED ON 5/28/2002 GRADE: B- https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/