Benjamin’s Stash

Is ZzzQuil banned in Alaska? Academy Award winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank star in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia.

InsomniaCast of Characters:
Det. Will Dormer – Al Pacino
Walter Finch – Robin Williams
Ellie Burr – Hilary Swank
Rachel Clement – Maura Tierney
Det. Hap Eckhart – Martin Donovan
Fred Duggar – Nicky Katt
Chief Nyback – Paul Dooley

Director – Christopher Nolan
Screenplay – Hillary Seitz
Based on characters created by Erik Skjoldbjaerg & Nikolaj Frobenius
Producer – Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell, Broderick Johnson & Andrew A. Kosove
Rated R for language, some violence and brief nudity

Following the murder of a 17-year-old girl, LAPD detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are sent to Nightmute, Alaska, to assist the local police with their investigation, at the request of Chief Nyback (Paul Dooley), an old colleague of theirs. Taken under the wing of Nightmute police officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), the case comes rather conveniently for the two detective who are currently caught up in the midst of an Internal Affairs investigation back home in L.A.

It’s not long after that Dormer finds himself in a psychological game of cat-and-mouse with primary suspect Walter Finch (Robin Williams), who happens to know more than a thing or two about Dormer’s shady past.

2002’s Insomnia is one of those rare examples of an American remake that not only works, it improves over the foreign original.

You won’t read that often here.

What director Christopher Nolan, coming off his breakthrough Memento, and writer Hillary Seitz wisely do is not just give us another retread of the 1997 Norwegian original. Both are heavily psychological, but where Stellan Skarsgard’s character was more existentially burdened, Al Pacino’s is more physically burdened. The title refers to the physical toil laid on Pacino’s character, who suffers his fair share of sleepless nights from the guilt and anxiety, brought on by certain events in the film, that wreak havoc on his psyche. Another nice addition Seitz gives to her rendition of the story is throwing in a complicated wedge between the two LAPD detectives that fuels the narrative.

Despite the critical praise, this movie is Nolan’s most underrated film. Of course, being stuck in between Memento (still Nolan’s best) and Batman Begins doesn’t help. Beautifully shot by longtime Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister, this a stark, grim, deftly constructed thriller, enshrouded in effectively chilling atmosphere and mood, that Alfred Hitchcock himself would give a tip of the hat to. While there are some well executed action sequences throughout the film, Insomnia is at its most gripping when it’s the quietest. Nolan is the type of filmmaker talented enough to take something as simple as a dinner table conversation or a seemingly calm phone call and dial the tension up to 11.

The past 15 years haven’t exactly been kind to Al Pacino. We’ve gotten Jack and Jill, Righteous Kill, Stand Up Guys, Ocean’s Thirteen, Gigli and somewhere out there, floating amidst the space-time continuum, is the time I wasted watching 88 Minutes that I’ll never ever get back. Let’s not forget, though. He’s still the same guy that gave us three Godfather films, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Scent of a Woman, Heat, and The Insider, to name a few. He’s got his bad days at the office like anyone else, but hand him a script worth his caliber and he’ll hit a grand slam.

Under the guidance of Nolan, Pacino tones down the “Hoo-ah!!!!”, but commands the screen no less than when he’s chiding you to not ask about his business or to say hello to his little friend. It’s one of the best performances Pacino has given in the past 20-25 years, and is a reminder that, no matter how many crap-bombs he may have put out recently, he’s still one of the best we have around.

There’s no denying what Williams accomplished in the world of comedy. The man could make us laugh ourselves to tears without even trying. It’s also safe to say everyone knew of his versatility as a dramatic actor, yet I’ve always felt they never quite placed him on the same pedestal as Pacino, or Robert De Niro, or many other acting legends. He belongs up there, though. Yes, Williams will understandably be more known for his comedy, but this is a man that went toe to toe here with Pacino, and also with De Niro (Awakenings), Jeff Bridges (The Fisher King) and Gene Hackman (The Birdcage) – four of the most beloved actors of the past 40 years. He not only held his own against those men, at times he stole the show.

Here, Williams is brilliantly ice cold and a great contrasting image to Pacino. Unlike Pacino’s Det. Dormer, whose own weary guilt has worn him down, Williams’s Walter Finch seems perfectly at peace with the circumstances surrounding him ’cause he knows he’s got an upper hand on Dormer. Every time the detective thinks he’s finally caught up, Finch pulls out a “wildcard” and moves one step ahead.

The supporting work is equally strong. Hilary Swank is great as the young, eager local cop. Maura Tierney does a fine job as Pacino’s innkeeper, who’s hiding a few secrets of her own. Special mention should also be given to younger castmates Jonathan Jackson and Lolita wannabe Katherine Isabelle, who hold their own quite well up against Pacino.

This is Pacino and Williams’s show, though. Together, they are absolutely magnetic, and their matching wits, cat-and-mouse games are by far the most intense moments of the film. Both underplay their scenes together, but the quiet tension generated between them is riveting.

Insomnia nowadays gets buried under the rest of Christopher Nolan’s work, but deservedly sits atop as one of his best films and certainly the most under-appreciated. Driven by three A-list performers doing what they do best, Seitz’s intelligent script and taut direction from a filmmaker just getting warmed up, Insomnia’s one of the best psychological thrillers of the past 15 years and a stepping stone for a man who’s now one of the strongest filmmakers of this era.

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