No rest for the wicked

Robin and Al compare the sizes of each other’s imaginary frogs.

Robin and Al compare the sizes of each other’s imaginary frogs.

Rated 5.0

The 2002 movie year gets its first bona fide masterpiece with Insomnia, from the director who, oddly enough, gave us last year’s first masterpiece, Memento. Christopher Nolan establishes himself as a director of incredible gifts, an artist who can make your head swim as if you haven’t slept for days, the very problem afflicting his film’s main character, Will Dormer (an expertly drained Al Pacino).

Dormer, an L.A. detective, has been sent to an Alaskan town where a young woman has been beaten to death. Dormer is there not only for his expertise, but because internal affairs wants him at a safe distance while they investigate him for vocational indiscretions.

In the town of Nightmute the sun never sets, which wreaks havoc on Dormer’s sleeping pattern. Nolan does an amazing job of creating that no-sleep vibe through editing tricks, swirling cameras and soundtrack manipulations. As his hours of sleeplessness rack up, Dormer starts to act like a strung-out drunk (a driving sequence where he is clearly losing control of his facilities will send shivers down the spines of truck drivers who have experienced road travel while sleep-deprived).

Pacino’s brilliant performance would be enough for most films, but Insomnia has far more to offer with a remarkable turn by Robin Williams, who shows up near the film’s mid-point as mystery novel writer Walter Finch. What Williams creates with this psychotic character is unquestionably the most complex, amazing work of his career.

Williams proved that he had a gift for understated, well-modulated performance, as opposed to his usual manic overdrive, with Good Will Hunting, but his superb work there is still no preparation for the surprise he puts forth in this film. You have never hated Williams like you will in Insomnia, even if you have seen Patch Adams.

The powerhouse acting doesn’t stop there, because Oscar winner Hilary Swank is also on hand as Alaskan police officer Ellie Burr, an earnest upstart and admirer of Dormer’s long career. Swank’s role isn’t as large or showy as her legendary co-stars, but it is an important one, and her character feels real and fleshed out despite its minimal screen time. She makes the most of her moments.

A relationship develops between Dormer and Finch, and its details will not be divulged here, other than to say it is sick, sick, sick. Dormer is not your typically exhausted police detective; there are many dimensions to his misery. Williams is the most complex of insane characters, an individual whose exterior is deceptively humane and pleasant but is nonetheless capable of inhuman, evil acts. Pacino and Williams make a wickedly nasty pair, with characterizations that go beyond good acting to something that approaches perfection.

Nolan, who did a great job of keeping you guessing with Memento, accomplishes similar feats with this production. While the film’s progression is more traditional than Memento‘s disjointed storyline, unexplained repeated imagery, such as an unknown character trying to wipe blood off a shirtsleeve, will have you wondering just what the hell is going on.

The film is based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Cinematographer Wally Pfister should be remembered at year’s end for his flawless capture of the Alaskan landscape and the incredible way he has photographed the actors, especially Pacino. Pacino, without any insult intended, looks like absolute death in this picture.

It’s almost June, so it won’t be any surprise if Pacino, Williams and Nolan get remembered when the Oscar noms are announced. Insomnia is a supreme example of a director’s vision combining perfectly with two performers at the top of their games. Mere words cannot capture the power of what they have created here … it must be seen.