Back before Christopher Nolan was breathing new life into the Batman film franchise and creating mind-bending blockbusters like Inception, he was the promising new director behind the indie release Memento. Its intricate twists and turns switched many on to Nolan’s talent, which made his next effort highly anticipated.
His follow-up turned out to be a remake of 1997’s Insomnia, a Norwegian crime drama starring Stellan Skarsgård. Like the original, Nolan’s Insomnia is a psychological thriller with emphasis firmly on the former, as the primary crime is quickly solved, whereas the inner demons of the protagonist take most of the movie’s 118 minutes to work their way out into the open.
In place of the original’s Norwegian town located above the Arctic Circle, the remake is set in the remote fishing village of Nightmute, Alaska, where the murder of a 17-year-old girl draws grizzled homicide detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) up from Los Angeles to help the podunk local police catch the killer. The pair are visiting during the time of year when the sun is constantly up, which starts out as a minor inconvenience, but quickly becomes a soul-sucking force that brings Dormer to his wit’s end.
The first twist hits early on, as we learn that back home in L.A., the two detectives are being investigated by Internal Affairs. Eckhart tells Dormer that he intends to cut a deal that will secure his own immunity, but which will almost certainly hang Dormer out to dry. A frustrated Dormer storms off and tries to get some sleep, but his restlessness is only compounded by the bright sunlight outside his hotel window.
The next day brings an attempt to force the killer out of hiding, resulting in an ill-advised pursuit through heavy fog, and a disoriented Dormer mistakenly shooting his partner. As he dies in Dormer’s arms, Eckhart accuses him of deliberately taking him out, setting the scene for Dormer to begin a guilt-fueled cover-up. Finding a gun that their suspect dropped, Dormer places the blame on the unidentified individual, and takes steps throughout the rest of the film to support his invented story, from planting ballistics evidence to twisting the facts of what he saw and heard in the fog.
Working the case alongside Dormer at the request of the local police chief is officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). Charged with assisting him on the teenager’s murder investigation as well as writing up the Eckhart shooting, Burr finds herself both drawn to Dormer’s experience and insight, yet confused by his increasingly erratic behavior.
We soon learn, as does Dormer, that the girl’s killer is Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a local author whom she visited but eventually rebuffed, with fatal consequences. Finch starts contacting Dormer, saying he knows the death of his partner was Dormer’s fault. Finch works the angle that the murdered girl’s boyfriend was abusive and should be charged with the killing, while Dormer tries to pin both murders on Finch via the weapon he dropped. The two play an increasingly dangerous game of cat and mouse, flitting between offers of assistance and threats to reveal all. Meanwhile, Burr continues to get closer to the truth of each through her own investigation.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Events come to a head when the girl’s boyfriend is arrested for the murders, the case is closed, and Dormer plans to leave Nightmute. But Burr continues to pursue Finch. Dormer realizes that the real killer intends to add her to his list of victims, and goes after her at Finch’s cabin retreat.
During the ensuing shootout, Burr chooses this inconvenient moment to confront Dormer about who really shot Eckhart. Dormer admits it was him, and that he himself doesn’t even know anymore whether it was an accident.
They then have a final encounter where Dormer kills Finch, but is fatally wounded in the process. Breathing his last, Dormer encourages Burr to complete her investigation truthfully, regardless of how it impacts his reputation. As he passes away, his relief is clear, with his final words being, “Just let me sleep.”
As you can probably gather from the above synopsis, the murder mystery element of Insomnia is resolved pretty early on, leaving Finch, Dormer, and Dormer’s own demons to do psychological battle for the remainder of the movie. Pacino is as strong a lead as ever, in a familiar role that he commands well. You can feel his struggle with sleep deprivation and guilt, with a delusional state skillfully communicated by Nolan through short bursts of flashback footage and lengthy shots of barren Alaskan scenery, which look even more alien than the alien landscapes Nolan would later provide in Interstellar.
Robin Williams being cast as the dark side of the duo is a more curious decision. This film (and also One Hour Photo, released the same year) seems to have been Williams’ attempt to reinvent himself after becoming known for Oscar-bait treacle like What Dreams May Come and Jakob the Liar. But beyond the novelty of having Robin Williams play the villain, there’s not much of note about this performance. Although he manages to pull out the occasional moment of sinister intent, Wiliams’ Finch generally feels like a flat, reluctant killer, and we never really care if he gets his comeuppance or not.
Insomnia isn’t perhaps the movie many hoped for following Memento; It’s a pretty low-key, minor effort compared to the complex, large-scale films Nolan would go on to make. It’s really just a very well-acted, well-shot police procedural, and without its cast of Academy Award winners, this could have easily been an episode of any TV cop drama.
But it does deliver a twisted reality that’s intriguing in its own right. The setting and style keep you on your toes, even if the plot doesn’t deliver many surprises. And while Williams doesn’t make the best bad guy, it’s a rare occasion that a movie starring Pacino isn’t worth watching. Happily, Insomnia isn’t the exception to that rule.