#9 in my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
It’s weird watching this in the middle of watching Twin Peaks. Both are about out of town lawmen coming to an out of the way small town in the heavily wooded parts of the American northwest to investigate the murder of a high school girl whose body had been dumped, naked, in plastic bags. The lawmen stay at lodges, and there’s even a use of the name Leland. Based on the Norwegian movie of the same name, Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, at some level, feels like the more literal version of David Lynch’s surrealistic exploration of a murder. But enough about that, how’s the movie?
Al Pacino is Will Dormer, a soon to be disgraced Los Angeles robbery-homicide detective who’s been sent to Alaska to help the local police department investigate the murder of Kay Connell. With him is his partner, Hap, who is considering cutting a deal with Internal Affairs that will throw Will under the bus but save his own skin. Will, convinced that if they just maintain a strong front, is disgusted and disappointed in his partner’s willingness to give in. With the local police, they find Kay’s backpack and let out a message to the community that leads the killer to try and reclaim it at a remote cabin in a rocky and foggy location outside of town. In the confusion, Will accidentally shoots and kills Hap who dies convinced that Will did it on purpose, and the killer witnessed it all.
The movie gets its title from the fact that the remote Alaskan town of Nightmute is above the Arctic Circle and has no nighttime that season and Will cannot get any sleep in his well-lit hotel room at the local lodge. That he cannot sleep means that he cannot forget the pressure he is under back home, the guilt he feels for shooting Hap, and that he’s being squeezed by the Kay’s killer, the local author Walter Finch, played by Robin Williams. This feeling is sold cinematically through over-exposed images, cross-cutting to previous moments, and blurring sound design as Pacino’s performance because more and more strung out. He often looks, in the latter parts of the film, to be struggling to simply keep his eyes open and focus.
All of this is solid stuff. Pacino is good. Williams is understated and creepy as Finch. Hillary Swank is eager as the young Detective Ellie who gets tasked with writing the report on Hap’s shooting. Everything is cleanly filmed in a professional manner, and the sequence in the fog is just the right combination of clear and murky to give us solid perspective into a hard to discern situation. The appearance of Williams provides an interesting level of menace, and Pacino’s increasing desperation as he loses more and more control of the situation is played really well.
I suppose the only thing holding me back from appreciating this film more is the ending. It’s not that I don’t like to see flawed protagonists relearn the correct values. It’s that I’m not sure I buy Will Dormer following through to the end. You see, Dormer, at a certain point, gives up on getting out clean with any hope of also getting Finch held responsible for Kay’s murder. So, he drives to Finch’s cabin in the middle of the country to kill him with Ellie having coincidentally gone at the same time to collect a piece of evidence for the Kay murder, Finch having come forward at Dormer’s insistence because there was no hiding the fact that Finch and Kay had a previous connection. Finch, the very careful murderer, accidentally leaves out the dress Kay was in when he murdered her, leading Ellie to figure out in a split second that he did it, even though, as far as we know, the police never knew what dress Kay had been wearing and it was well known that Finch had bought the girl clothes. The meat of the final confrontation is built around this realization that feels thin at best. So, Dormer has to save Ellie, who’s also figured out that Dormer did in fact shoot Hap in a solid piece of movie detective work, kill Finch, and, as he lays dying due to a shotgun blast from Finch, insists on Ellie letting the truth out about Hap’s death.
Now, I’ve seen the original film, and it ends very different with the Dormer analogue getting away clean. That’s not necessarily what I want from this American version, though. My criticism isn’t because this takes a nicer route than it’s progenitor, but that it’s a combination of too convenient, too thin, and too clean. Ellie being there at the same time feels almost like a distraction. Ellie figuring out that Finch is the killer feels too easy. Dormer wanting to just kill Finch feels like the right move for his character, but using his dying breath to accept responsibility feels like a step too far. There’s nothing really wrong with this ending, but I suspect there’s a superior, more interesting on in a previous draft of the script.
Overall Insomnia is a finely crafted thriller with a strong central character at its core. It’s the sort of thing one might expect from an up and coming director given a decent budget in order to try and prove himself. The personalities involved in front of the camera were probably too strong for the young Brit to fully control, so he corralled them effectively. He made something safe to prove that he could operate in the system, reminding me a bit of Orson Welles’ The Stranger, though Nolan and Welles would go on to have vastly different careers.