In the superb psychological thriller Insomnia, Al Pacino’s face is battered by weariness accrued from the psychic compromises of every cop he has ever portrayed in a famous career of pretend law enforcement. He looks crumpled, unretouched — and you can’t take your eyes off him. Pacino plays Will Dormer, a veteran detective whose natural job-induced exhaustion is heightened by exposure to the alien northern Alaskan landscape he finds himself in: Dormer and his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), are on loan from the LAPD to help solve the murder of a teenage girl, and while they’re familiar with the gruesome, fetishistic details of the case, they’re not prepared for the severe sensory disorientation brought on by the never-setting sun. Physical sleep and spiritual rest become equally elusive as the shadows surrounding this Dormer are exposed to a relentless light.
Playing a haggard man staggering deeper into moral and physical sleeplessness, Pacino the great actor is wide awake, giving a more powerful, nuanced performance than he has in years. And as reclusive mystery writer Walter Finch, a prime suspect psychologically astute enough to toy sadistically with Dormer’s wrecked head and body clock, Robin Williams — one of our more brazen scenery chewers — also snaps to, investing Finch with a soft-spoken, finicky creepiness. The link between the two is the directorial confidence of Christopher Nolan. Neither repeating nor losing touch with the keen trickiness of ”Memento” or his feature debut, ”Following,” he uses his first big Hollywood picture — a good, basic cop flick — to demonstrate that he’s the real deal. This is a filmmaker in full control of mood, tone, and pacing, to whom actors as wildly different as Pacino and Williams can entrust their best instincts, rather than their showiest.
As in ”Memento,” ”Insomnia” (a remake, scripted by first-timer Hillary Seitz, of an already terrific 1997 Norwegian film starring Stellan Skarsgard) is about a man who comes to distrust his own perceptions, and who must negotiate a jury-rigged system of clues and ethics to accomplish his goals. But this time Nolan links his stylish cinematic moves more effortlessly to his characters’ inner lives. (This time his characters actually have inner lives.) So, for example, when Dormer attempts more and more desperately to block out the light (of reckoning, after a lifetime of compromises) leaking into his hotel room, the shards and slashes of imagery Nolan assembles convey more than cool, kinetic art direction — they also express believable psychic unraveling.
A significant chunk of ”Insomnia” is spent in literal fog, or rain, or mud, or an approximation of the inside of one man’s eyelids. The luxuriously mournful fog indeed proves crucial when shots ring out as the cops pursue Finch in a slippery stakeout, and Eckhart falls.
That’s when the aging cop’s guilt-ridden, soul-draining insomnia really kicks in. Hilary Swank shoulders the add-a-girl role of the bright young local rookie whose dewy admiration of Dormer is tempered by what she uncovers in her own enterprising police investigation.
While the story provides several nifty action sequences, particularly a chase over wet, floating logs, some of the most riveting stuff involves nothing more high-concept or action-packed than two actors sharing a meal. One riveting scene hangs on the banality of the two LAPD cops sitting in their rustic Alaskan hotel restaurant, where Eckhart informs Dormer that he’s decided to cooperate with an Internal Affairs investigation back home, implicating his colleague in grievous procedural misconduct that will undoubtedly end Dormer’s career in disgrace.
It’s not what the partners say to each other so much as the crackling connection between the two actors that enthralls: This is what it looks like when talent is deep, with none of the poses, twitches, and shouts that too often pass for serious performance in movies today. Something about the low-key naturalism of Donovan (an unruffled, underused actor with a mortuary calm regularly on display in Hal Hartley films) ignites Pacino and relaxes him, too. The star has rarely looked so well taken care of (and thus energized) by the project he’s in.
And for that, I credit the luck of the remake (rent the striking original and judge for yourself), the talent of Nolan, and one more thing, too: a complexity of character increasingly rare in movies. In ”Memento,” Guy Pearce plays a walking erasable chalkboard who can’t remember from minute to minute whether he’s chasing or being chased, which is really interesting as a neurological oddity and the basis for a reshuffled narrative structure. But the freak is a cipher, and empathy is expendable.
Pacino’s Will Dormer, in contrast, is a man who remembers too much. He’s contradictory, volatile, well-meaning, weak, angry, and very, very tired. He’s memorable.