“There are two kinds of people in Alaska,” said the bartender. “Those who are born here and those who come here to escape something. I wasn’t born here.” I wouldn’t know if it is true, but it’s a fabulous movie line. She, the bartender, says this after realizing that detective who can’t sleep is doing his best to hide the fact that he shot and killed his partner. That’s not a spoiler, but it’s an interesting premise.
When a teenage girl is found murdered in a remote cabin, Chief Nyback (Paul Dooley) in Nightmute, Alaska, asks for help from an old friend, Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) from LAPD. Dormer and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) fly up at a rather convenient time because the detective is facing an investigation from Internal Affairs because planting evidence is wrong, even when a suspect is guilty. That’s the first reason Dormer can’t sleep. The second is Alaska is nearly full sun 24 hours at that particular time of year. Then comes the third reason.
Dormer, Eckhardt, and a couple of Nightmute officers attempt to question Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a local writer who is connected to the murdered teen, but he flees into a hilly area covered by rocks and a thick fog. A few shots are exchanged leaving the officer next to Dormer with a leg injury, but more significant is the fatal bullet that kills Eckhardt. Everyone naturally assumes the suspect is responsible, but Officer Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), with the least experience on the force, senses that something else may have happened.
Officer Burr notes how stressed Dormer appears, barely keeping his eyes open, speech slurred, unable to sleep. It could be Alaska, but it could be something more. Dormer calls his dead partner’s wife to deliver the tragic news, but then he gets a phone call of his own – from someone who saw what Dormer did. Dormer’s already stressed-out face gets punched once more, and he clearly seems ready to either snap or crumble at any moment.
Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) directs a tight remake of a Swedish film of the same name, slightly re-worked by the original screenwriters. He slowly brings Pacino to the edge of an emotional and psychological cliff. Pacino looks half asleep even on his best day, and it plays perfectly into a story about the biggest fish in the pond but now relocated to someone else’s pond and not knowing for sure which way to swim. There are a few flaws, no question. Early on, Detective Dormer makes some statements with expert certainty about the murderers motives and actions, but those suggestions are never fully explored or explained.
Following him is Swank (Million Dollar Baby), who doesn’t like but can’t ignore the evidence that starts to lean in Dormer’s direction. Burr is a young, idealistic officer who has studied some of Dormer’s cases and recites various procedures, hoping to impress him. However, she also suffers through blatant disrespect from the other officers, even bludgeoned with sexist jokes – with half-hearted apologies – during a bar scene in which she learns they not only disrespect her as a cop but also as a woman.
Insomnia is one of several films in which Robin Williams plays someone to which you do NOT want to turn your back. Williams plays a local writer who the murder victim admired and got a closer than any parent of any child would prefer. Eventually it is learned that they corresponded often and even met in person on more than one occasion. Williams is normally excellent as the quiet lunatic, showing you a pleasant smile but not showing the knife he’s holding behind his back.
The Good: Pacino as the guilty pursuing the guilty.
The Bad: How Swank is treated by her fellow officers
The Ugly: All that Pacino is hiding