'Insomnia': a dream cast, murder and madness

In the opening scenes of Christopher Nolan's smart, moody thriller, a plane flies low over a glacier, soaring over the strange, pitted mass of dingy blue-tinged white. We seem to be entering a mysterious wonderland, like the planet Naboo or Tolkien's Middle-earth — but no, it's just the town of Nightmute, Alaska, home of the midnight sun.

Disorientation lies beneath "Insomnia," and Nolan establishes this from the start. Veteran detective Will Dormer (a nice pun on the French verb for "sleep"), played to weary perfection by Al Pacino, arrives in Nightmute to lead a murder investigation. Taking charge of the local team, he barks an order to visit the victim's high school. The other detectives eye each other, before one offers that it's 10 o'clock at night. The sun — an oddly grayish, wet light — is still high in the sky.

Like Erik Skjoldbjaerg's haunting 1997 Norwegian film "Insomnia" on which this film is based (available on DVD, and not to be missed), this "Insomnia" seems at first to be a fairly standard police procedural, but quickly veers into psychological territory, with Dormer as a not-quite-heroic hero. The case frustrates him, as does the never-ending light that torments his sleep. And, in a moment of disorientation when the suspect is near, a gun is fired and something terrible happens, sending Dormer into a downward spiral.

Nolan demonstrated with "Memento" (and the lesser-seen, but equally adept "Following") that he's an expert with the slipperiness of time. While "Insomnia's" structure seems conventional compared to the backward puzzle-box of "Memento," it's hardly straightforward. Time has collapsed for sleep-deprived Dormer, and so we see tiny glimpses of flashbacks — most notably, the image of blood glopping onto the weave of a white shirt. Soon even the sounds of the office are turning inward on him.

Despite a nifty action sequence involving floating logs and the obligatory final-act violence, "Insomnia" is really an actor's showcase. Pacino, his creased face looking like it's been aged in a smokehouse, is wonderfully bleary as the increasingly confused Dormer. "It's so bright in here," he pathetically tells the no-nonsense hotel clerk (Maura Tierney) late in the film, though the room is dark. He's on the edge of madness, and Pacino isn't afraid to totter.

Robin Williams, as murder suspect Walter Finch, is equally remarkable in a different way. He seems to have completely emptied his usual bag of tricks, employing a measured blandness that is actually rather frightening — there's not a trace of a twinkle, or of the odd pseudo-accent that Williams often employs. It's an absolutely minimalist performance, and a triumph of less-is-more.

And Hilary Swank, playing an idealistic young Nightmute detective with a bright smile and a sensible bob, makes something lovely from what could have been a throwaway role. Ellie Burr, who idolizes Dormer, has the upright posture and scrubbed-clean demeanor of someone who was always first in her class; and her ultimate realization of her idol's shortcomings is surprisingly touching.

In the end, only one is left standing, as Nolan shows us a pale corpse slowly disappearing below the icy-gray water — a beautiful, haunting moment, from a director who's rapidly proving himself to be a master of his craft.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.


With Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan. Directed by Christopher Nolan, from a screenplay by Hillary Seitz. 118 minutes. Rated R for language, some violence and brief nudity. Several theaters.