Shadows and light in land of the midnight sun
By Patrick Reed

“Somebody should have taken you down a long time ago for making
movies like Patch Adams and Flubber.”

Released late in 2000, Christopher Nolan's Memento proved to be a quintessential "discussion" movie. Using familiar film noir elements-murder, betrayal, seedy surroundings-Nolan (with writing help from his brother Jonathan) managed to create one of those "did you catch that?" and "what the hell did that mean?" sort of movies that refreshingly treats its audience as sentient, attentive human beings, and challenges them accordingly. Memento's backward narrative and plethora of plot clues certainly helped the low-budget indie become a sizable cult success over the past year, and the film's puzzle-solving appeal continues with a new enhanced DVD release. But all of the fancy tricks served a larger purpose-to place the viewer squarely into the deepest crevices of the protagonist's addled psyche-and few characters have been more thoroughly dissected than Memento's memory-challenged Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). Think about how Nolan employed Shelby's point of view to gradually reveal new aspects of the character; at one moment sympathetic, then hostile, and finally both hopeless and very dangerous.

Christopher Nolan generated beaucoup buzz with Memento, and seemingly made astute choices in selecting an ideal follow-up. Insomnia's financial backers include Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's Section Eight Productions, and the assembled cast is sprinkled with Oscar gold (as both print and TV ads proudly stress). Having Robin Williams play against type is attention-getting, but even more alluring is Nolan's casting coup for the central character; what uneasy truths about the human condition will be uncovered when Al Pacino undertakes a Memento-level psychological analysis? Based on a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name (with Breaking The Waves' Stellan Skarsgard in the Pacino role), Insomnia is a more conventional film than Memento-the narrative is linear, for starters-but its suspense, characterization, and dramatic tension are of equally high caliber.

First-time screenwriter Hillary Seitz adapted the Norwegian film's screenplay and set this Insomnia in a fictional Alaskan town named Nightmute. Two Los Angeles detectives are being flown into the pristine wilderness to help the local police solve a brutal murder: the beating of a 17-year-old girl. Legendary sleuth Will Dormer (Pacino, hairpiece clearly evident) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are supposedly needed to crack the case-the body has been doctored to leave no trace of physical evidence-but there's a subtext for their visit. Both are being grilled by Internal Affairs for possible corruption, and as the two detectives start investigating in Alaska, Dormer's increasing disgust for his partner's willingness to "cut a deal" when they return to L.A. threatens to consume him. The fact that it's the Alaskan summer season-meaning perpetual daylight-doesn't help Dormer's concentration either.

A fog-drenched stakeout near a coastal cabin brings Dormer and his team in contact with the killer, but in the ensuing chase Hap is killed and the shadowy figure escapes. Feeling responsible for the whole situation-the scandal back home, the assignment into exile, Hap's death-Dormer begins to careen into a sleepless trance of guilt and rage. Ambitious-but-naive local detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) is assigned to write (or, unwittingly, cover) up Hap's death by Dormer, who obsessively pores over the primary murder's case file even as his conscience turns against him. It isn't long before Dormer is face to face with a second-rate crime novelist named Walter Finch (Williams) who confesses to killing the girl matter-of-factly, and with no remorse. The only problem is that Finch knows about Dormer's past as well, and is more than willing to barter his silence for freedom.

The rest of Insomnia pits cop against criminal, but as with Memento's Leonard Shelby, the character of Will Dormer becomes more multi-dimensional as the story unfolds, and many of his attributes aren't very admirable. While Williams has some effectively creepy moments, especially when reflecting on his "relationship" with the teenage girl, he never comes across as the type of forceful criminal that could blackmail a seasoned detective. Williams takes more risks in this movie than any since The Fisher King at least-remember that unbearable "feel-good" rut he was in during most of the 90s?-but his villain often seems to be an overtly familiar archetype (think along the lines of a John Malkovich/Kevin Spacey creation, a sadistic killer motivated by weakness). Pacino, on the other hand, gives an incredibly complex performance, inhabiting a weary, long-deluded man whose relentless pursuit of justice and inflated ego have over time corrupted his life's work. As with Memento, Nolan's direction perfectly complements the acting; his use of editing, camera angles, locations (great use of the Pacific Northwest), and especially darkness and light get us inside of Will Dormer's sleep-deprived, self-recriminating mind. It's a disturbing, but always compelling, place to be.