Rating: R for language, violence, brief nudity
Run Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Are remakes really necessary? Sometimes yes (“Ocean’s 11” into “Ocean’s Eleven”) and sometimes no (“Manhunter” into the “The Red Dragon”). But once in a while the concept is so deliciously intriguing (noirish foreign indie remade by brilliant young director starring world’s most respected actor) that it seems there’s nothing to lose.
Norway’s 1997 “Insomnia” was a dark psycho-drama bathed in the eternal bright light of the Nordic summer. Christopher Nolan’s (“Memento”) moody interpretation maintains the same suspenseful aura of moral decay set against a vivid backdrop of colorless purity. Al Pacino stars as Will Dormer, a veteran LAPD detective who arrives in a tiny Alaskan burg with a suitcase full of skeletons and a grisly murder to solve. Dormer and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) immediately set to the painstaking task of accumulating gruesome evidence, while struggling through some personal differences stemming from an Internal Affairs predicament they left behind. Assisting them on the case is local cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed rookie who suffers from a considerable case of Dormer hero-worship.
Nerves, conscience and the perpetual daylight of America’s land of the midnight sun take their toll. Dormer can’t sleep, haunted by the past and the relenting sunlight that pours into his hotel room window despite his efforts to contain it. Tension comes to a head when Dormer and Hap plant a false tip intended to flush out their primary suspect (Robin Williams as Walter Finch). The stakeout ends tragically when Dormer, shrouded in a blanket of fog, takes a haphazard shot at his fleeing suspect and discovers that he’s murdered his partner.
The hook is the drama within the drama. An unsolved murder and an unresolved moral issue jockey for the spotlight. Dormer maintains his innocence regarding the fatal mishap, and suffers the weight of crushing guilt magnified by one, two, three, four, five consecutive sleepless days and nights. Meanwhile Finch, alert to his adversary’s vulnerability, exploits Dormer’s Achilles heel with a vengeance.
Pacino is a marvel as a man plagued by demons, yet desperate to do right by himself and the law. How to define your personal truth when it’s unbearably painful? Donovan gives his small role the emotional focus it warrants, and Williams is a frightening revelation as a dangerous psychopath cum master manipulator. Swank is the weak link, pivotal as the hyper-perceptive muse but unable to deliver the subtleties necessary to supercharge her ethical conflict.
The movie is a visual beauty – clear, clean, and ripe with the breathtaking majesty of remote Alaska. Nolan semi-succumbs to the curse of crafting the traditional thriller, doling out his story with an unfortunate quantity of convention and not enough edgy imbalance. Ambiguous conclusion adds climactic punch to the old standard. As thrillers go, it’s certainly worth a look (and a remake).