There is good movie-watching, there's great movie-watching and then there's the perfectionist's delight, a movie like Insomnia (Warner Bros. VHS/$14.99). There is good movie-watching, there's great movie-watching and then there's the perfectionist's delight, a movie like Insomnia (Warner Bros. VHS/$14.99).
Based on the 1997 Norwegian film, this manhunt for a vicious killer has a fascinating twist: in hot pursuit hard-bit, veteran LAPD Detective Will Dormer is, himself, being boxed in. Dormer once had to frame a murderer in order to get a conviction and, now, dodges the long arm of internal affairs. Called on to investigate a homicide in an Alaskan town, he inexorably comes head to head with his fate. As sleeplessness in the perpetual daylight of Alaskan summer erodes Dormer's sanity, he grows unsure what the difference is between his behavior and that of the criminal he's chasing. With the law on his own heels, the closer the hero comes to catching the villain the closer his life comes to falling completely apart. The climactic showdown of this character-driven gem is a five-star, eye-popping, jaw-slackening payoff.
Al Pacino portrays Will Dormer, a world-weary stoic who doesn't so much as blink an eye at doing the wrong thing for the right reason. He gives the complex Dormer layered humanity, a flinty exterior, caring heart and grim resolve to track down the homicidal maniac who beat a 17-year old girl to death. He completely convinces as a man who, plagued by constant pressure and gradually weakened by the lack of good night's sleep, descends into near madness but never gives up. From Dormer's arrival in the land of midnight sun, through tortuous inner-conflict, to the character's ultimate, nerve-wracking moment of truth, Pacino is flawless. It's a masterful turn by one of the screen's most gifted actors in a role worthy of his merit.
An excellent foil in a surprising turn is Robin Williams, who departs from his customary sweet-as-mother's-milk persona to give a chilling performance as the monstrously depraved Walter Finch. Cool, calm, collected and an absolute lunatic, Finch is as shrewd as he is evil, using Dormer's past to turn him into Finch's prey. While comedian Williams is the last actor anyone would imagine in this role, he's, in fact, disturbingly believable. With an implacable demeanor behind which one can sense the wheels methodically turning, he is dementia personified. Working opposite a performer any less powerful than Pacino, Williams would have stolen the movie, hands-down. Each has won an Academy Award and both should be nominated best actor at next year's Oscar ceremonies.
The film's other Academy Award winner, Hillary Swank, plays Det. Ellie Burr, the catalyst who brings Dormer and Finch into final conflict. In contrast to her co-stars, Swank is quietly but nonetheless thoroughly effective. The fine actor Maura Tierney (Instinct, Primal Fear), best known for her comedic work on NBC's "NewsRadio", appears in a minor supporting role as innkeeper Rachel Clement.
Director Christopher Nolan does first-time screenwriter Hillary Seitz's air-tight script fine justice, building momentum solidly enough to satisfy the most chronic suspense-junkie and culminating with an explosive climax, complete with somberly reflective aftermath.
Insomnia is a rarity among American-made films, a production anchored first and foremost by strong writing. Where American writers (a general contradiction in terms) put sizzle before the steak, Nikolaj Frobenius' and Erik Skjoldbjaerg's original story works the other way around. The priority here is not bullet holes and car crashes but the theme, itself, which draws power from the interaction of characters -- what they want and how far each will to go in order to achieve a desired end. The protagonist compels in direct relation to just how much he is willing to risk in the act of going afte