Sleepless in Alaska

Robin Williams to Al Pacino in <i>Insomnia</i>: “I must warn you—if you start chewing the scenery, I shall be forced to do my Marcel Marceau impression.”

Robin Williams to Al Pacino in Insomnia: “I must warn you—if you start chewing the scenery, I shall be forced to do my Marcel Marceau impression.”

Rated 3.0

It’s not the sex-slayer who can’t sleep in the intriguing but somewhat clinical and contrived Insomnia. The killer’s conscience is warped enough to allow fitful night slumbers after he beats a young girl to death and methodically washes her hair and cuts her nails to hide all evidence of guilt. It’s the cop on his trail who is unable to even nap for days on end.

Famous Los Angeles detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino carrying a name that plays on the foreign verb root “to sleep”) has more than a murder and the midnight sun of the Arctic Circle disrupting his nocturnal rest. His reputation, past convictions and the domino effect of precinct corruption rides on the outcome of an Internal Affairs investigation that haunts his trip to a tiny Alaskan town where he hopes to solve the gruesome homicide.

Dormer and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) arrive in Nightmute by small plane. They help the local sheriffs organize a stakeout that ends in the shooting death of a police officer on a foggy, rocky lake beach. Dormer, aided primarily by rookie cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank with a hick name but neither pregnant nor barefoot), then begins pursuing such suspects as the victim’s abusive boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson) and flighty detective novel writer Walter Finch (Robin Williams). A high-stakes cat and mouse game evolves to include a possible unholy alliance between hunter and quarry before all pieces of the murder puzzle are gathered and sorted.

Director Christopher Nolan made a huge splash last year with the time-twisting thriller Memento in which a man with no short-term memory hunts for the killer of his wife. Here amnesia has been replaced with sleep deprivation as the malady du jour as Nolan once again explores the ramifications of intuition and the ability to feel time as Dormer’s stability wanes.

Nolan’s Insomnia is an adaptation of the 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name. It loses credibility with two hard-to-swallow discoveries by Burr that are key to plot progression. It plays more like a police procedural at times than a true thriller. It also uses such clichés as a malevolent Internal Affairs agent (“sucking the marrow out of real cops when you never had the balls to be one yourself,” says Dormer) and small rural town America as the armpit of the universe.

The pluses of the film are excellent cinematography and sound effects. The light that constantly surges through Dormer’s hotel room window serves as a metaphor for a hounding conscience and the gorgeous Alaskan scenery accentuates the ugliness of the deeds at hand.

Pacino has previously crawled under the skin of several cinema cops with chameleon-like credibility. His rap sheet of motion picture policemen includes a whistleblowing hippie (Serpico); a sex-hungry, world-weary divorcé (Sea of Love); a voyeuristic, sexually ambivalent mole (Cruising); and a married, obsessive detective (Heat). These peace officers all have one thing in common: they are not at peace with the world or themselves. They chew on their own inner complexity as much as crime scene clues, face infection from the fallout of crime and violence, and struggle for redemption amid moral ambiguity.

Pacino, in the role originally played by Good Will Hunting’s Stellan Skarsgard, continues this slither into the psychologically deep end of the law enforcement pool. Dormer’s mental and physical deterioration is riveting, especially during one bar scene in which he appears to hear but cannot react to the conversation around him.

Swank, who strapped down her breasts and won an Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry, straps on a handgun and grins sheepishly without much impact. Williams competently sandwiches his role as slippery suspect between dark roles in the recent Death to Smoochy and upcoming One Hour Photo.

“It’s a lot simpler up here, says one Nightmute cop to Dormer. “There are good guys and bad guys and a lot less public relations.” But still the same dirt.