No sleep till Anchorage
“Insomnia” didn’t keep me awake at night delving into the psychology of the characters, but it did fill my days pondering questions such as “Does the end always justify the means?”
It’s a story about making decisions that carry heavy consequences, and how different people live with those decisions.
I went into the movie cautiously, worried I’d have to watch the bloody details of a psycho-killer brutally murdering a teen-age girl, but “Insomnia” presented itself more like a Hitchcock movie, artistically zooming in on characters’ faces and employing scenery, lighting and symbolic props to create suspense.
Jagged glaciers in the beginning of the movie foreshadow the increasingly icy situation Will Dormer falls into as the murderer blackmails Dormer after witnessing him kill his partner. The lush scenery and 24-hour daylight of Alaskan summers contrast Dormer’s descent into a nightmarish existence as his guilt over killing his partner, desire to protect himself and drive to nail the murderer create a weeklong insomnia.
Compelling chase scenes, such as Dormer’s pursuit of the suspect as he runs across milled logs floating between docks, add to the suspense.
The psychological thriller continues as the pathological murderer urges Dormer to see how killing someone changes a person, and therefore, makes them alike. The killer is almost believable in his childlike denial that he didn’t mean to slaughter the teen-ager, but his evil wild card leaves little question of his twisted state of mind.
The film’s success in delving into the inner workings of the mind is flawed only by the final Hollywood-shoot-out scene. It seems the director thought the audience needed an action-packed, cathartic blowout after the intense buildup, but a subtle approach would have been more satisfying and impactful.
While “Insomnia” has been criticized for not delving into the killer’s character enough or for leaving people with the uneasy feeling that the film could have been developed more, it asks audiences to think deeply about why the characters made the decisions they did, and how you would react if given a similar situation.
As utterly wrong as it would be to call “Insomnia” a sleeper hit, it’d be less appropriate to describe it as light suspense.
Director Christopher Nolan seeds “Insomnia” with about half the mind-bending gimmickry of his first hit – opting for 24 hours of Alaskan sunlight instead of the plot-scrambling amnesia of “Memento,” a real sleeper last year. But without “Memento’s” trickery, Nolan has to rely on Will Dormer’s (actor Al Pacino’s) insomnia to twist a by-the-books detective plot into something unusual.
The title gives the gimmick of “Insomnia” away: It’s the way light affects the human brain when there’s 24 hours of sunlight, leading to – you guessed it – sleeplessness, the resulting hallucinations and bad judgment. It’s the same principle that makes melatonin a sleep aid, that means St. John’s wort makes you photosensitive and that made my friend buy a soft-top Jeep immediately upon his return from a winter in Sweden. It’s an Arctic-Circle phenomenon Norwegians Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg probably knew a lot about when they wrote the 1997 screenplay Nolan adapted.
Unfortunately, it’s not a phenomenon Nolan mines as much as he could. As Dormer, Pacino evidently forgot to bring the Nytol along (but remembered to pack his “Scent of a Woman” accent), and he does a good job of looking progressively more tired as his murder investigation deepens. But there’s more to insomnia than being tired, and “Insomnia” doesn’t make the most of its potential. Nolan captures some of that uneasiness expertly – the constant hum of a digital alarm clock, the Maxfield Parrish look of the mountains after sleepless nights – but Pacino’s dizzying ride through sleeplessness and clouded judgment seems like it could be even more surreal, more unsettling.
Strong performances from Pacino, Hilary Swank and a mercifully subdued Robin Williams keep “Insomnia” worth watching: It’s compelling, thought-provoking and seldom drags. But because it left me with the feeling it still could be much better, I think I can give it about two-and-a-half stars – and not lose any sleep over it.
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