The sun doesn’t go down in Insomnia. Rather, it shines relentlessly, bleeding through drawn blinds and door cracks, at all hours. For the locals in the ominously named Nightmute, Alaska, this is normal. For the visiting Detective Dormer (Al Pacino), also ominously named, it’s a waking nightmare. The man can’t sleep. And not just because of all that light. On loan from the L.A.P.D. to the decidedly smaller department in Nightmute, Dormer arrives with his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), via a rocky biplane ride. Looking out over the bright white snowy mountains as they approach, Hap worries that there’s nothing out there. In response, Dormer looks exhausted. And this is before the case even begins.
Will Dormer’s inability to sleep is thematic, of course, much as Leonard Shelby’s lack of short-term memory was in director Chris Nolan’s previous, much-beloved feature. Dormer’s called in to solve a horrific murder, the brutal beating death of a high school girl, at the hands of someone who then washed her hair and clipped her nails before he left her body at the local garbage dump. Following the requisite morgue scene — where body parts, wounds, and a few hard-to-read flashbacks to the crime appear in close-up — Dormer opines, “this guy stepped over the line and he didn’t even blink.”
As this showy pronouncement suggests, Dormer knows something about stepping over lines. He comes equipped with a complicated, evidently shady history, rendered in deft, if somewhat obvious strokes: Hap carries an L.A. newspaper with a headline concerning corruption in the homicide division, and he and Dormer have a neatly explanatory argument about Hap’s decision to submit to pressures from Internal Affairs, clearly aimed at “getting” Dormer. This argument leads to tension on the job, as they investigate the murder, and eventually, to what appears to be a terrible accident, Dormer’s fatal shooting of his partner while they’re chasing the shadowy suspect across a foggy, rocky terrain. Will says the now-disappeared suspect shot Hap, and since no one saw anything, it looks like he’ll get away with it.
With this background, Nolan’s film provides a denser, deeper characterization of Dormer than its source, the exquisitely spare and haunting 1997 Norwegian film by Erik Skjoldbjaerg, also called Insomnia, wherein Stellan Skarsgård’s detective’s motives must be culled from his actions. Afraid and not a little creepy, he doesn’t do nearly the amount of talking and emoting that Pacino does. In large part, Pacino’s characterization is a function of endlessly inventive camerawork by Wally Pfister (this movie simply looks amazing). But it’s also a function of the actor’s own careful approximation of exhaustion. He’s actually subdued here, compared to some of his other recent performances, say, in Any Given Sunday (1999) and Devil’s Advocate (1997). Sans hoo-ha!, he gives a perversely compelling performance, part devious, part fearful, and part ravaged. In fact, Dormer is falling apart as you watch him, unable to stop himself, and eventually, unwilling as well.
Pacino’s lower-key approach seems to have rubbed off on costar Robin Williams, who might easily have given Pacino a run for his scenery-chewing money. He plays the murderer, Finch, a cheesy crime novelist who declares “admiration” for Dormer’s profession, then names himself Dormer’s new “partner,” since he knows what happened with Hap. Their relationship evolves speedily, as Finch insists on calling Dormer in the middle of the luminous night, nattering on about guilt and accidents (he claims his murder was also inadvertent, though, as Dormer points out, it took him ten minutes to beat the girl to death).
“You don’t know me,” warbles Finch, taunting the man he so fervently plainly admires and dreads. Ahh, but he does. “Walter Finch, lousy writer, lonely freak, murderer.” Dormer knows because he sees, inside himself as much as he’s into his adversary. Dormer’s self-doubts take him for a wild ride inside his own mind, along with Hap’s ghost and a few harder-to-parse memory fragments. And so he’s drawn, apparently inexorably, into Finch’s moral murkiness, a point made too obviously ironic because of all the damn light. Their liaison is all about looking and being afraid to look, bobbing and weaving: one dramatic set piece has Dormer chasing after Finch across a river of logs — as Finch scampers from rolling surface to rolling surface, Dormer takes a tumble, a fall made more alarming by the fact that the logs move with the current, slamming into one another and blocking Will’s desperate efforts to break through to the surface.
Inasmuch as Finch is vaguely right (they are “alike,” having killed and lied about it because they were able), the two descend into a fairly standard movie-cop-killer bond, full of odium and rivalry, each trying to outposture and outthink the other, with Dormer’s part rather severely hampered by five or six nights without sleep. Given that Finch’s preferred means of intimacy with his new buddy is the phone — not only does he call him at the hotel, he also Dormer when he’s clambering around in Finch’s own home. That Finch knows the cop is there isn’t so much of a surprise. That Dormer submits to this harassment is more of one.
Finch assumes an intimacy that Dormer can’t seem to resist: after inviting Dormer to take a shower, he asks him to feed his dogs. Dormer hangs up, at last. But the point is made. The men share a closeness in spite of themselves, a mutual appreciation that is vaguely erotic, expressly competitive, and occasionally quite electric. These guys can’t get enough of each other or themselves.
Into the midst of this boy-boy action steps Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), the eager young detective assigned to help get Dormer around town (as she gushes on their first meeting, she studied his cases in school). Even when she suspects something’s not quite right, but goes along, hoping her idol will pull it out, and not be the fallible, if well intentioned vigilante he seems to be. As she reminds him, he once said, “Good cops can’t sleep because that missing piece of the puzzle keeps them awake. Bad cops can’t sleep because of their conscience.” Hmmm. Wonder whom she’s talking about. Ellie’s will — to conscience, to consciousness, to waking — affects Dormer’s own choices by the end, and helps to redeem him. This makes Nolan’s film less dire than Skjoldbjaerg’s, but also less elegant.