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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2002

Hard daze, sleepless nights


Rating: * * * *
Director: Christopher Nolan
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

The history of cinema is littered with the wrecks of directors who peaked too fast and too young, never able to live up to the expectations generated by an early masterpiece. The most frightening example is Michael Cimino, who won an Oscar for "The Deer Hunter," only to find his career effectively terminated when his next film, the overly ambitious (but not half-bad) "Heaven's Gate," flopped spectacularly.

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Al Pacino and Hilary Swank in Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia"

Thus it is with some trepidation that one sits down to view "Insomnia," director Christopher Nolan's followup to "Memento," a film that came out of left-field to become a runaway hit. Beyond its commercial success, it was a perfect marriage of story and style, perhaps the tightest, most mind-bending thriller since "Vertigo." But most of all, "Memento" was a trick film, a brilliant trick, but as we all know, you can't pull off the same trick twice. What would Nolan do next?

With "Insomnia" -- a remake of the 1997 art-house film of the same name -- Nolan plays it safe: He doesn't attempt to take the innovations of "Memento" a step further, but he doesn't fall flat on his face either. "Insomnia" is a good film, a thriller in the classic sense, but it is a conventional film, which "Memento" surely wasn't.

Now that we've got expectations over with, sit back and notice that you've got three Oscar winners in the cast: Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. Nolan has always seemed like a good director of actors; the cagey performances in "Memento" were pitched just perfectly, but that fact often got obscured by the film's astonishing, puzzle-like editing. In "Insomnia," the film plays out along a far more ordinary story thread (though Nolan can't resist a few ambiguous flashbacks), so the focus pulls in far more sharply on the actors. And Pacino and Williams -- an absolutely brilliant bit of odd-couple casting -- deliver the goods in scene after scene.

Pacino plays Will Dormer, a homicide detective in Los Angeles who's sent to a backwater Alaskan town with his partner Hap Eckhart (Hal Hartley regular Martin Donovan), ostensibly to assist a particularly nasty murder investigation, but also to escape the heat of an Internal Affairs inquiry. The duo arrive at the height of Alaskan summer, where the days go on forever and night never falls.

Dormer meets Ellie Burr (Swank), an idealistic rookie cop who studied all his cases at school. He receives her enthusiasm coolly, for his mind is elsewhere: that Internal Affairs inquisition. Dormer, good cop that he is, has some long-buried secrets (and what L.A. cop doesn't these days?), and his partner is about to cut a deal with the investigators and reveal some of them.

On top of this is the homicide -- a 17-year-old girl, brutally beaten to death, the corpse carefully cleaned to remove any trace of evidence -- and the fear that the killer will strike again. "This guy," warns Dormer, "he crossed the line and didn't even blink." And for Dormer everything gets more confused as the perma-sun in Alaska makes it impossible for him to get any sleep. As the days drag on, Dormer operates on auto-pilot, until -- on the verge of getting his man -- he causes a fatal accident and chooses to conceal his responsibility.

I'll stop there: The how and why of Robin Williams entering the fray will be left for you to find out. Let's just say he manages to take his more laid-back and bemused style (as in "What Dreams May Come," for example) and slip a hell of a lot of ambiguity behind those sparkling eyes. Pacino is known for the fire he brings to his scenes; Williams absorbs it like a rock, the immovable object to Pacino's irresistible force.

It's Pacino's flick, though, and he graces it with one of his better performances of the past decade. Pacino is an actor who established himself through manic energy and an explosive intensity -- think "The Panic in Needle Park," "Serpico" or "Dog Day Afternoon" -- and those qualities haven't always served him well the further he moves away from age 50. Here he turns the volume down and, like he did so well in "Donnie Brasco," adopts a world-weary attitude that's etched in the lines of his face.

Pacino's Dormer is the kind of cop Wim Wenders would love -- rumpled and bleary-eyed, but with an imperturbable professionalism and a keen sense for reading people. Pacino plays it low-key, but audiences know Pacino, so all he has to do is hint at Dormer's inner strength. Check out the scene where he questions a suspect, the dead girl's boyfriend, who's being particularly uncooperative. Unlike a similar scene in "Heat," where Pacino suddenly starts raving like a maniac, all he does here is look the sullen kid straight in the eye, drop his voice down real low, and say, "This whole 'f**k the world' act ain't gonna work with me. 'Cause I know things." And suddenly the kid is ready to talk.

Nolan mostly stays out of the way and lets his actors do the work, but he pumps up the adrenaline when he needs to. When the cops pursue the killer down a mist-shrouded, rock-strewn riverbed, it's a deliciously tense scene full of shadowy figures and sudden gunshots. There's an echo of "Memento" as well, in the subjective way Nolan plunges us into Dormer's mental state. As his insomnia progresses, Nolan simulates the effect with some queasy camerawork and heightened, hallucinatory sound. If "Memento" wrecked hell with your short-term memory, "Insomnia" will leave you dazed.

Call him an auteur, or just call him someone who knows what he likes, but Nolan always hammers home the same themes. There's a hero who's haunted by his past actions, surrounded by people he's not sure he can trust. And there's a larger moral dimension, the gray area in which action always begets unintended consequences. Finally, there's always a paradox: In "Following," Nolan's directorial debut, you had a writer trying to convince the cops of a story that he himself realized was implausible; in "Memento," Lennie based his entire life on memories he couldn't clearly remember; and in "Insomnia," Dormer tries to cover up his own crime while -- as a cop -- knowing that's next to impossible. "Small lies, small mistakes," he advises Ellie. "People give themselves away, it's human nature."

Nolan, as usual, gives away nothing, until the time is ripe. "Insomnia" may turn out to be one of the director's less adventurous films, but it still does the job as a solid thriller. That makes three in a row for Nolan, who is now front-runner for the "new Hitchcock" title; spare no tears for M. Night Shyamalan.

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