Insomnia again

Remake of Swedish crime film almost as good as original

WHO DIDn’t DO IT? Robin Williams (left) could be a psychotic mystery writer and Al Pacino could be a guilty cop in Christopher Nolan’s remake of <i>Insomnia</i>.

WHO DIDn’t DO IT? Robin Williams (left) could be a psychotic mystery writer and Al Pacino could be a guilty cop in Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia.

Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hillary Swank. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

A few years back, Stellan Skarsgaard played a tired-looking Swedish cop sent to the upper reaches of Norway to help out on a nasty murder case. Right from the start nothing goes well for the cop, and the non-stop daylight of the polar summer just makes matters worse. Frantically trying to cover his own mistakes, he also has to battle guilty self-doubts and sleeplessness, which combine to drive him to the edge of madness. The story was called Insomnia.

Now Al Pacino is suffering anguished sleeplessness of his own as a beleaguered L.A. cop sent to Alaska to help out on a nasty murder case. Indeed, he’s playing the Skarsgaard role in a remake of that powerful Swedish film with Christopher Nolan, the guy who made last year’s extraordinary Memento, now doing the directing (Eric Skjoldsbjaerg directed and also co-wrote the Scandinavian original).

The cold-sweat realism of Skarsgaard’s sad-sack detective has been replaced by the demonic theatricality of an increasingly woozy Pacino, but the gloomy weather, emotional and otherwise, and the ingeniously gnarled plotting of the original remain intact in Nolan’s version. Skarsgaard’s spiritual exhaustion and growing guilt are much more touching than Pacino’s, but the new Insomnia has the not inconsiderable benefit of Robin Williams playing the elusive figure who is both nemesis and alter ego to a masterful detective who is beginning to flounder.

Pacino’s recent tendencies toward self-parody crop up here again, but Williams gets a chilling ambiguity out of just playing it straight, with the result that their scenes together make for an extraordinarily rich confounding of the usual good guy-bad guy dynamics. The result is an atmospheric police procedural with an almost Dostoevskian drift in its central characterizations.

The initial murder-mystery elements get folded over into something else when the Pacino character accidentally kills his partner (Martin Donovan) during a chase in the shoreline fog. That shifts the suspense to an intricate cat-and-mouse game between two fox-smart and weirdly guilty characters—the legend-weary Detective Dormer (Pacino) and the backwater mystery novelist Walter Finch (Williams).

Hillary Swank is also on hand as the idealistic local cop who half-idolizes Dormer. Nicky Katt and Paul Dooley provide good support, but among the smaller roles it is Donovan who is most effective.

Nolan’s new film is not as dazzling as Memento, but both versions of Insomnia are standouts as police stories with unusually strong character drama.