Insomnia: Christopher Nolan, the most underrated Robin Williams movie turns 20

Insomina (L, 114mins) Directed by Christopher Nolan ****

Mute night, Alaska. The land of the midnight sun (and 3 am).

Bound in fog, isolated and surrounded by rugged terrain and ice-covered mountains, there’s not much going on in this world’s self-proclaimed halibut fishing capital – and whatever happens is alcohol-related.

But the peace of the city is shattered when the body of a local girl appears in a landfill, wrapped in a garbage bag. Surprisingly, when he was beaten to death, his hair was washed and his nails cut.


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Confused, the local police enlist the services of LA Robbery and Homicide detectives Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) and Will Dormer (Al Pacino). Distracted by the Internal Affairs investigation in their own department, Eckhart and Dormer are happy to be assigned to a simpler place where there are good people, bad people, and less public relations.

With the help of enthusiastic local detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), they aim to prove the theory that most murders are solved by working within the first 48 hours and finding people who cross the line without even blinking. But Dormer was suffering from severe insomnia and this constant sun exposure didn’t help.

Then, when the sting operation to catch their killer pear-shaped, his chances of sleeping become much less. As Detective Burr says, the good cop can’t sleep because he’s missing a piece of the puzzle. And the bad cop can’t sleep because his conscience won’t allow it.

In Christopher Nolan's Alaskan Insomnia, we're never quite sure who to trust, and the line between good and evil remains blurred right down to the very last frame.


In Christopher Nolan’s Alaskan Insomnia, we’re never quite sure who to trust, and the line between good and evil remains blurred right down to the very last frame.

Director Christopher Nolan, who wowed audiences with his takedown thriller memories two years earlier, played things a lot straighter in this 2002 saga. But that doesn’t mean he’s letting go of suspense — or intrigue.

Based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg, Insomnia is an icy psychological drama. Like memorieswe are never sure who to trust, and the line between good and evil remains blurred until the very last frame.

Replacing amnesia with insomnia, Nolan once again demonstrates that he can manipulate the camera and audience to reveal a character’s fragile state of mind. Here we see Dormer seeing images flash before his eyes and his consciousness going in and out of sleep deprivation.

Hilary Swank and Al Pacino star in Insomnia.


Hilary Swank and Al Pacino star in Insomnia.

To make us believe that, credit must also go to Pacino (who always looks a few hours deprived of a good night’s sleep), who manages to portray a cop going over the edge without resorting to histrionics or nervous tics. Full of history and scars, he is just as interesting to watch as Guy Pearce’s memoryless man memories.

However, it was the late Robin Williams who made the biggest impact here. Back after a three year hiatus on the big screen after a schmaltz-overload Men of two centuries (save the voiceover at Steven Spielberg’s AI), this much darker turn took many fans by surprise – and together with the same year One Hour Photo – marks a new direction for actors, whose dramatic skills are often overlooked and underutilized.

If there are a few quibbles, it’s the highly unwritten role for Oscar winner Swank and a few formula chase scenes, which, Dormer says, are as mysterious to movie-goers as “a clogged toilet is for a plumber”.

But, when you think that a few years earlier, any film that combines Williams and Pacino is bound to be This Analysis rip-off, this was a pleasant and amazing surprise. Insomnia unfolded the two actors and they excelled in what is still an atmospheric psychological drama that packs a real punch.

Insomnia is now available for rent from Microsoft, Aro Video and Alice’s.

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