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From the DVD Shelf: Insomnia (2002)

There’s no question in my mind that Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working today.  There’s only one of his films that I haven’t seen (his first — Following — and I do hope to remedy that situation soon), and I have thoroughly enjoyed every other movie he’s made.  His worst film is probably Batman Begins, and I think that’s a pretty damn good film!

Contrary to my previous statement, my sense is that the general consensus about Mr. Nolan is that Insomnia, his follow-up to Memento, is his weakest film.  But I remember enjoying Insomnia back in 2002, and I really loved it when watching it again on blu-ray last week.

Insomnia is a remake of a 1997 Swedish film of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgard and directed by Eric Skjoldbjaerg.  I’ve never seen the original Insomnia, though I understand that it’s pretty well thought of.  I realize that, had I seen it, it’s possible that I might be as dubious of a remake as I am of the recently-released re-do of Let The Right One In (the new American version is titled simply Let Me In).  But having not seen the original, I am free to judge Mr. Nolan’s version exclusively by its own merits — and it’s quite excellent.

Al Pacino plays beleaguered L.A. homicide detective Will Dormer.  The L.A. police department has been rocked by allegations of misconduct, and Dormer believes that the I.A. investigators are ultimately after him.  In the midst of that, Dormer and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) are dispatched to a tiny Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teen-aged girl.  Heading up the local investigation is a young, well-meaning cop named Elie Burr (Hilary Swank).  She clearly worships Detective Dormer, and he seems to appreciate her enthusiasm.  But the case is a difficult one, and Detective Dormer soon finds himself stymied by his main suspect, a local author named Walter Finch (Robin Williams).  As the film progresses, Dormer gradually unravels, his struggles with the case exacerbated by his persistent insomnia (caused perhaps by the fact that, because of how far North as the Alaskan town is, the sun never sets during this season — or, perhaps by Dormer’s growing guilt over the mistakes of his past and a terrible event that happens soon after arriving in Alaska).

This was a high-profile role for Hilary Swank, coming as it did not long after her Academy Award-winning role in Boys Don’t Cry (1999).  Ms. Swank is solid if unspectacular in the film.  The real superstars of Insomnia are Al Pacino and Robin Williams.

Though unquestionably one of the greatest actors of our time, I’ve often felt that in the last decade or so Mr. Pacino (not unlike his colleage Robert De Niro) has become something of a caricature.  Many of his recent performances have been of the “Hoo-ah!” variety — over-exaggerated cartoons as opposed to his amazingly potent, live-wire roles in the ’70s and ’80s.  But a film like Insomnia clearly demonstrates that Mr. Pacino has every ounce of talent and charisma that he always had.  He is eminently watchable as Detective Will Dormer.  Though he talks a good game, Detective Dormer is a beaten man when we first meet him in the film, and he only collapses further as the story progresses.  There’s a potent charisma there that draws our attention to him whenever he’s on screen — but Pacino’s performance conveys that Dormer is just a shadow of the dynamic younger man he must have been, a shambling echo of a once-great cop.  “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage,” Indiana Jones said, and that’s as good a description as I can think of for this powerful but weary character.  It’s a wonderful, well-written role, and Mr. Pacino sinks his teeth into it.  One wonders if the weakness in his resume for the last decade or so doesn’t speak less to any loss of his acting abilities, and more to directors and studios not knowing how best to utilize Mr. Pacino’s gifts.

Will Dormer is a fairly quiet man (at least for an Al Pacino character), but he seems like a cyclone of energy next to Robin Williams’ Walter Finch.  Though Williams is well-known for his manic energy on-stage and on-screen, his performance as Finch is incredibly restrained.  Williams’ Finch is an extraordinarily still character — he speaks and moves softly and very deliberately.  He has a preternatural calm, which is incredibly unnerving especially as he bluntly describes to Detective Dormer what he has done.  Cat-and-mouse battle-of-wits stories between a cop and a criminal are a dime a dozen, but the combination of Williams and Pacino brings extraordinary life to this tale.

Insomnia has some great actors in the supporting roles as well.  It’s great to see Paul Dooley (who was so memorable as Cardassian spy-master Enabran Tain on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) in a small role as the old buddy of Dormer’s who now heads up the Alaskan police department.  Then there’s Maura Tierney (Newsradio) as the woman who runs the inn where Dormer and Hap are staying while in Alaska.  It’s a tiny role, and as the film progressed I wondered why the heck the filmmakers cast an actress like Maura Tierney for such an insignificant role.  Well, right at the end of the film she has a scene with Mr. Pacino that explains EXACTLY why she was cast in the role.  It’s a critical scene, and Ms. Tierney knocks it out of the park.  She’s phenomenal.

I watched Insomnia on blu-ray (the recently-released special edition disc) and it was jaw-droppingly stunning.  The film was presented in crystal-clear clarity, which served to highlight the wonderful work of director Christopher Nolan and his team.  The Alaskan setting couldn’t look more spectacular.  The natural beauty –perfectly presented by the blu-ray disc — serves as a beautiful backdrop for this taut, well-acted and well-written film.  If you’ve missed this film in Christopher Nolan’s repertoire, I encourage you to take a look.

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