If you’re casting a movie about a world-weary old guy who can’t sleep, Al Pacino is the obvious choice. The decades have done marvelous sculpting work on Pacino, from his artistically wrinkled face to his gently doddering gait. Until he opens his mouth, everything about him seems tired.
Pacino has been a yowling caricature lately; he’s apparently choosing movies by the flavor of their scenery. But he turns his exhausted look to spectacular effect in Insomnia, a compelling remake of Erik Skjoldsbjrg’s phenomenal 1997 thriller starring Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd as a Swedish detective trying to solve a murder in the deepest backwoods of Norway.
The Hollywood version sends two Los Angeles cops (Pacino and Martin Donovan) to Nightmute, Alaska, where somebody has beaten a 17-year-old girl to death before washing her hair, clipping her fingernails and tossing her body in a landfill. After an impressively filmed shoot-out on a fog-covered beach, Will Dormer, the artfully named detective played by Pacino, focuses on quiet local novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams) as his prime suspect. Dormer also forms a strange bond with Ellie (Hilary Swank), the bright-eyed local detective assigned to help him. But the investigation would be going much better if Dormer could get even one wink of sleep in the 24-hour daylight of Alaskan summertime.
Christopher Nolan—the British director whose appreciation for guy-on-the-edge noir showed in his breakthrough film, Memento—has taken every advantage of the alien land in which Dormer finds himself. There is an embarrassment of stunning shots of Alaska (or British Columbia, where much of the picture was filmed) that almost accidentally pop up in several scenes. The picture creates an uneasy calm from water, fog and pine trees to offset the jarring evil that brought Dormer there in the first place.
Thrillers ultimately rely less on their actors than comedies, but Pacino and Williams are the best reasons to see Insomnia. Although The Osbournes hadn’t aired when Insomnia was being filmed, Pacino is one “Sharon!” short of a bizarre Ozzy homage as he stumbles open-mouthed and hapless through the film’s final days. With none of his usual screaming and strutting, Pacino fashions a perpetually strung-out look that leaves us to wonder how much is still going on behind the glazed eyes that eerily recall SkarsgÃ¥rd’s masterful work in the original.
Then there is Williams, who has made enough horrifically bad movies in the last 15 years to qualify for disaster relief funds from FEMA. It’s hard not to give too much away, but he’s outstanding in Insomnia, filling his role with an ominous, matter-of-fact evil. Though he’s got no chance of parole after Patch Adams, Williams is a creative dramatic actor who’s at his best when he parachutes into films for a few sharp, pungent scenes (Dead Again and Good Will Hunting being the best examples).
Nolan is so sharp, you almost don’t notice him. He follows Skjoldsbjrg’s unconventional film through its tight corners and compelling twists, and it’s difficult to quibble with such assured work—except for the absence of the creepy sexual vibe that topped off the entire experience of the original. For instance, Maura Tierney plays the role of a hotel clerk who got manhandled by SkarsgÃ¥rd’s emotionally stunted character, but Pacino doesn’t touch her. Nolan is more concerned with the ambiguity that arises from humanizing his characters. While everybody seemed somewhat evil in Skjoldsbjrg’s film, it’s hard to tell whether anybody is truly evil in Nolan’s version.
Several outstanding crime thrillers have been made in recent years, but there have been very few psychological thrillers that truly worked. Maybe Nolan is a harbinger of cinema’s next trend. You may have a strange experience during Insomnia—you genuinely might not know how it’s going to turn out.