Insomnia (review)

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Secrets and Lies

I’d say I don’t envy Christopher Nolan the decisions he had to make when considering a follow-up project to Memento, except that I know that by the time his exercise in backwards filmmaking had hit the screens and was blowing audiences away, he was already shooting his follow-up project, and Insomnia is it. It’s as different from Memento as could be, in some ways — here’s a big-budget studio picture with a cast of big-name Oscar winners versus the little indie that couldn’t find a distributor — and in some ways it’s the same story: of a man haunted by the past and driven to try to put old ghosts to rest, one told with the same quiet stylishness, the same intelligence, the same understanding of how much to tell the audience, and how much to withhold.
Nolan’s got an instinct with actors, too, Insomnia reveals, because whether he painstakingly directed Al Pacino (The Insider, Donnie Brasco) or just left him alone to do his thing, it was the right thing to do. Pacino’s Will Dormer, taciturn and tormented Los Angeles cop, is his best performance in years — even when he’s seemingly doing nothing, when he’s motionless and silent, there’s a whole world seething behind his eyes. And this compelling internal world is where Insomnia takes place.

Sure, Will is a homicide detective from L.A. thrown into remote, small-town Alaska, called in by an old friend to help with a local murder investigation. But like the man said, No matter where you go, there you are: Will is getting by Internal Affairs for something shady back in L.A., and his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan: The Opposite of Sex), along for the ride, gives Will some bad news just after they arrive. The dense fog on the Alaskan beach, where Will and the local cops search for evidence, would be claustrophobic anyway; the woods would be creepy, the caves dripping moisture would be eerie. But filtered through Will’s guilty conscience — and filtered through Nolan and his cinematographer’s washed-out, color-drained photography — what might otherwise be beautiful takes on a heavy oppressiveness: the weight of Will’s fear bearing down on us.

Even the constant daylight at the top of the world feels relentless, depressing. Of course, Will is convinced that it’s the sunlight creeping around the window shades that’s keeping him awake through the bright Alaskan nights, and not the secrets that plague him. And now the killer Will’s here to find is privy to one of those secrets, one that could sink Will for certain. The moments when Will is talking to the killer by phone, juggling between his policeman’s instincts and those for self-preservation, are the most softly thrilling moments of the film, and it’s all in the shifting of Pacino’s eyes, in the minute tensing of his body. The man is god, no question, and I am not worthy of even analyzing his work. And you are not worthy of reading about him, so just stop and go see the movie.

You’re still here. Okay, Nolan also got the best performance out of Robin Williams in a long time, maybe the best performance ever. As crime novelist Walter Finch — who dabbles in murder on the side — Williams (Death to Smoochy, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) denies what seems to be his instinct for jumping around and exploding onscreen. He barely moves, and he’s never been more chilling.

The cat-and-mouse between cop and killer, the moral complications of both, the jarring loneliness of it all… if there’s one film that Insomnia calls to mind, it’s The Silence of the Lambs. This one could keep you up nights, turning it over in your mind, too.

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