Insomnia. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Martin Donovan.
We'd be tempted to call this flick "film noir" if it weren't for the waves of light that flood both landscape and dreamscape in the Land of Midnight Sun where hotshot Los Angeles detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino, looking like death on a soda cracker, world-weary and saggy-jowled) washes up pending an investigation of his irregular investigative procedures. Dormer, renowned for sniffing out killers and miscreants, appears to have cut corners to put the bad guys away, a dereliction for which he may have to pay not only by watching his career and reputation dissolve in disgrace but also by watching those very truants walk since his methods will have compromised their convictions. All this ferment weighs on Dormer as he and his low key dumbo of a partner (Martin Donovan) disembark in Nowhere, Alaska, visiting specialists called in to help a retired buddy take on the grizzly murder of a young woman. Sharp local cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank, trying to hold in her elegant cheekbones and look appropriately mousy for the role) worships the famous Dormer, has followed all his cases, cites him from his own voluminous writings, and tails him--a little too near--as he shambles halfheartedly through this investigation, his mind clearly on his own troubles back home.
The magnificent and sprawling Alaska territory swims in light, camera work both beautiful and menacing, as Dormer (whose name, in case you missed it, you dummy, means "sleeper": whap! Sorry. I hoped I wouldn't have to do that.) finds himself unable to close his eyes to the inevitable leakage of sun into his motel room, constant irritant to his already overloaded conscience. And as if he needed more to feel guilty about, an ambivalent episode in which he shoots or doesn't his partner, who's just admitted he may have to cut a deal to avoid prosecution and turn state's evidence against Will when they get back, poisons Will's peace even further and leaves him literally a sleepwalker, sallow, peaked, bleary-eyed, and stumbling from clue to clue, as if from… [see below for image]. Worse yet, Dormer now falls under the spell of his prey, the murderer--identified early on in this unusual "mystery"--Robin Williams, underplaying for once a hack writer drawing on rudimentary (Hollywood) understanding of (Hollywood) human psychology to one-up the detective and save his own butt. Great Eliza-crossing-the-ice scene in a log jam with the city boy detective whuffing and lurching unhandily in a world clearly alien to him from log to log until…
Meanwhile, Ellie Burr (Her name, "burr," describes her insistent pursuit of truth and her constant aggravation to Dormer, in case you missed it, you dummy: Holden Caulfied, The Catcher--"hold"--in the Rye--"field"?; Chris Taylor, "Chris(t)" in Platoon? Ishmael, "ich"--"male"? in Moby Dick? Naaaah… that last one was bogus. C'mon!) meticulously emulates her idol but in doing so discovers not only his inadvertencies but also his culpability. What to do now? Turn him in? Smother it? And on and on. Nolan, the director, apparently made such a hit last time out with an independent flick talked about all over (Memento, disjointed, rambling tale of a detective who either does or doesn't commit the crime himself--uh oh! Familiar?--told in snatches of misplaced time) that they turned him loose with a heavy hitter like Pacino first time out in the bigs. Glossy flick with watchable stars, glorious photography, strong characterization, but pretty weak story and unhappily implausible--though predictable--(Hollywood) ending in which a secondary or second string character teaches the Great Man a lesson in (Hollywood) morality to the infinite gratification of all us secondary or second string characters who can dream of accomplishing same feat one day.