Rated R - Running Time: 1:58 - Released 5/24/02

From director Christopher Nolan, who gave us 2000's most intelligent thriller Memento, comes Insomnia, a remake of a critically acclaimed 1997 Norwegian film of the same name by Erik Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius. In fact, it was so widely lauded, one wonders...why bother making another version? As with any other question in the movie industry that begins with the word "why," the answer is the same: Money. With a script updated to appeal to the American audience by newcomer Hillary Seitz, Nolan's insightful direction, and onscreen talent like Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams, this new version attempts to mine the material for the highest possible dollar return. And while it may be little more than an Americanized knock-off of Skjoldbjærg's film, it will no doubt pull in more bucks.

Don't get me wrong. This is a taut, well-crafted film, and it perpetuates Nolan's reputation for interesting directing choices and also showcases some nice camera work by cinematographer Wally Pfister. Basically recounting the exact story from the Norwegian film, Insomnia centers around a once-great cop who has come under investigation for some questionable behavior, and is sent to a remote northern outpost where the sun never sets. In this version, that cop is L.A. investigator Will Dormer (Pacino), whose legendary status precedes him in Nightmute, Alaska, where he and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are assigned to help with a local murder case. In fact, the local cop on the case, Ellie Burr (Swank), practically gushes over Will when she meets him. "I've read all your books," she says. But there is an undercurrent of tension between the two partners, since Hap's intention to cooperate with the L.A. investigation may bring Will's whole career under scrutiny.

The Nightmute case involves a teenage girl who was brutally beaten and left dead at the city landfill, but the killer had not just dumped her bloody corpse in haste. Taking time and care, he had lovingly cleaned her up, washed her hair, and trimmed her nails, removing any trace of forensic evidence. "This guy crossed the line," Dormer says. But things begin to go awry when the team tries to catch the killer on a foggy day. Thinking he has the suspect in his sights, Will fires, accidentally killing his partner. Their estrangement over the pending investigation might lead some to believe he did it on purpose, but no one saw...except the murder suspect (Williams). Then, during a sleepless, sunlit night, Will gets a phone call from the man, who wants to strike a deal. If Will agrees to point the investigation away from him, he will stay quiet about what he saw. As the investigation goes on, Will's lack of sleep begins to affect his perception and judgment, while the ever-present sun seems to cast a constant light on his guilt and Ellie comes closer and closer to discovering the truth.

From what I hear about it, I'm sorry to have missed the 1997 version of this film, but this one is certainly adequate. Pacino gives one of the best performances I've seen him in; his sense of sleeplessness is infectuous, weighing down the entire proceeding with a kind of relentless fatigue. This isn't an easy characterization; he must be the hero and yet be capable of evil, always on the fence of morality, never showing in which direction he'll fall. Meanwhile, Swank is superb in a much less fulfilling role, solidly proving that her Oscar for Boys Don't Cry was no accident, and Williams is surprisingly low-key and believable as the killer. This film may not keep you up at night, but it certainly shines a light on the talent of its participants. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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