By Joe Lozito
Director Christopher Nolan sure does like to mess with the senses. After directing 2000's reverse-time instant classic "Memento", Mr. Nolan chooses to remake the 1997 Norwegian crime thriller "Insomnia", which follows a police detective battling a killer and the title disorder. The plot is easily transplanted from northern Norway to northern Alaska, where the sun never sets and even the town's name is atmospheric ("Nightmute"). Al Pacino plays Will Dormer (Dormir, Spanish for "to sleep", get it?), a Los Angeles cop assigned to aid the Nightmute police in the investigation of a murder mostly, it seems, in order to get him out of L.A. while Internal Affairs probes his cases. It's a nice bit of back-story and Mr. Pacino carries the burden of this potential career-ending information well.
Dormer is the type of movie cop who's seen it all and, after inspecting a corpse for thirty seconds, discovers a clue that the local police missed. It's a movie cliché, but it's needed for the story and it's done subtly and with style. When Dormer meets a potential apprentice in wide-eyed young cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), he revels in spouting advice like "it's all in the little things". For Ms. Swank, it's her best role since "Boys Don't Cry" and perhaps the first proof since that film that she may not be a flash in the pan. When the police chief tells Dormer "she loves this job", you know something is going to happen that taints that love, and Ms. Swank travels that path well.
The 24 hours of daylight begin to take their toll on Dormer as he finds, in several well-executed scenes, that he can't fall asleep. Is it the constant sunlight streaming through the thin shades of his hotel room? Is it the nagging inability to solve the young girl's murder? Or is it any of a number of plot points that are best not divulged here? Regardless of the answer, Mr. Pacino's every move seems to show the weight of all these possibilities. It is easily his best, most fully-realized performance in years. Happily abandoning the near Shatner-esque delivery that hasn't worked since "Glengarry Glen Ross", Mr. Pacino seems to slip comfortably into the skin of the Dormer character. As the movie progresses, his steps get less sure, he stoops over, his eyes don't focus, and those great detective skills are put to the test. Not since "Marathon Man" has an actor so convincingly portrayed extreme exhaustion. And it is this performance that carries the film.
Where it takes the film is another story. Mr. Nolan is a director of style and substance. He likes to tell a good story in a way that is unique and interesting for the viewer. He creates a palpable sense of atmosphere and foreboding throughout the film, and he gets uniformly solid performances from his actors - including Robin Williams, only slightly out of place as the killer. However, Mr. Nolan's one misstep comes in the form of a protracted, climactic shootout. It's an odd moment for a director who seems to craft each move so carefully. Thankfully, it's also a rare one.