Al Pacino is the key to Insomnia’s ragged, persistent energy. He has always been an actor of overwhelming physicality (he slunk around Scarface like a hungry debutante panther). This may be surprising, from a person 5’7” from the ground, but the lower center of gravity seems to give him a kind of hefty power. You can feel the weight of his body, the heavy precision of hauling around so much personality. Where any actor would have played Detective Will Dormer as a man with a heavy heart, Pacino’s struggle is all physical. His life has become burdensome to him, not just the thought of it but the act of carrying it around, and like many of his characters he doesn’t know what else to do besides bear as much of it as he can before he burns out. Insomnia is one of the best burnouts I’ve ever seen.

Dormer is being investigated by a board of inquiry when he’s transferred to Nightmute, Alaska (it sounds like the name has been made for the film, but it hasn’t). He’s so far from civilization that the investigation doesn’t matter except that it matters to Dormer – they can’t touch him out here, but they can still burden him with the knowledge. The sun is almost always shining in Nightmute. The weight of wakefulness piles onto Pacino’s shoulders; simply moving through his day becomes Sisyphean (not just because it’s futile, but because it began as Sisyphus began: with the belief that he’s cleverer than the system). Young Detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) idolizes Dormer, till his superheroic proportions in her mind gradually whittle down to 5’7”.

The murderer, innocently named Walter Finch (he has the name of a 60s sitcom dad) who has somehow found shadows in the gleaming sunlight, is never shown acting with the animalistic violence required to commit his crimes. Robin Williams plays him as a gentle loner hoping for a second chance. When he pleads with Dormer (unlike the detective, he has an emotional existence), he perhaps doesn’t realize that the detective only responds to threats and pleas in the physical world. Eventually, particulars of the case draw them close enough to become co-conspirators. Williams is majestically dark, with not one shot of his ragdoll face burning calories for yuks. He is normally an abrasive personality, and in Insomnia proves again that a death stare from a clown is scarier than from a villain.

This struggle – the murderer’s existential calm against Dormer’s breaking body – is why the conversations shimmer in Insomnia. It’s also why the action is pointless. As if by mandate, this cop thriller ends in a shootout where the clear poetic intentions would make a film in which the seasoned man of violence goes the whole film without firing his gun (imagine if Gran Torino ended with the gunslinger shooting up the neighborhood). A chase across floating logs is equally disenchanting, by supporting the belief that Dormer “still has it,” in a film exclusively about his burning up in the persistent sunshine. Someone gets trapped underwater and miraculously survives dying of cold, as though they’re in some kind of action movie.

I named the murderer and described some of the things he does as though Insomnia isn’t about the mystery at all, which is pretty true. That’s its exciting take on the genre: the scenes cause this mounting end-of-the-world vibe, of a civilization swallowed in lies and fog, and the fact that we know the murderer the whole time doesn’t matter at all. It’s far less about Dormer catching Finch than it is about understanding how he’s chasing himself more than anyone. He’s trying to escape the prison of his life by punching the walls.

The bluish sterile cold of the endless daytime is a perfect slate to showcase the conflict. Sunlight, the weather for cheery people, is beaten into excessive normalcy: its beauty becomes dreary through repetition. We imagine Dormer’s life going through the same process. And if Pacino is ideally physical to play Dormer, Williams is a perfect counterweight. Someone else might have played Finch crazy or more distant and undone (Kevin Spacey comes to mind, as someone too high-minded to be relatable). Instead, we can work out Finch’s pleas in our mind; the reasonableness of Williams’ insanity makes it seem functional and poetic compared to Dormer’s struggle against moving.

I don’t like where Insomnia ends up. It’s close enough to your first guess that its silent ambiguity becomes strangely futile. Action is so contrary to its drama – which is as deep-set as Pacino’s weathered eyes – that the melody sometimes goes out of tune. But at a glance, the film can be measured as one measures Dormer. Nolan’s rugged, sometimes shaky intimacy makes even a simple exchange feel as real as the crevices in Pacino’s face. Insomnia is from the time when Nolan still believed that film can’t be faked. Only Pacino running, jumping, and shooting has the illustrious nonsense of a Hollywood showdown. The rest is a slow-broil, heavy in the jowls, a burdensome pleasure. The film contains almost no music beyond some subtly extended chords and natural shimmers. I’m not sure, but I imagine it to be the ringing in Dormer’s ears. Nolan gets that close, and I don’t think he has since.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Christopher Nolan

Hillary Seitz (screenplay)

Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg (book)

Detective Will Dormer Al Pacino
Walter Finch Robin Williams
Detective Ellie Burr Hilary Swank
Rachel Clement Maura Tierney
Detective Hap Eckhart Martin Donovan
Fred Duggar Nicky Katt
Chief Charlie Nyback Paul Dooley


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