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IN SHORT: More arthouse than blockbuster, as befitting the star names. [Rated R for language, some violence, and brief nudity. 118 minutes]
Those that were utterly confused by the backwards construction of director Christopher Nolan's debut effort should be pleased to know that there are no such tricks this time out. So, what happens when you take the director of one of the greatest films of last year, Memento (go get it now) and try to find the next project, one which will not be subject to the legendary bane of all creative types, the sophomore jinx? You hire three Oscar winners, all of whom can make something out of the merest nothing of a shrug or a twitch or a body motion. Then you take these three: LA Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino), reclusive novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams) and local detective with a sever case of hero worship Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) and allow them to take their abilities to make something out of nothing and give them a script where the nothing overpowers the something to such an extent that no one in the audience can move because they might miss something.
Trust us. Move any time in the first two acts and you will miss something -- not that Nolan is so hell bent on putting us into the mindsets of the sleep deprived that he has forgotten how to tell a story. It's just that in putting us into the mind of the sleep deprived, everything gets incredibly confused. Hillary Seitz' script must have read like a Pulitzer prize winner but Nolan's execution is at times shocking (that's the good part) as often as it is confusing. Ultimately, Insomnia is a film that film students will pick apart in University while the ordinary Joe will suffer through sympathetic pangs of insomnia in a slow and deliberately paced film that hopes against hope that the viewing audience is intelligent enough to fill in the gaps and ignore the confusing visual logic that fill the third act of the film.
It isn't that "nothing happens" in the film, which is packed with murders and killings and betrayals and setups and frame-ups and small town morality versus big city crookedness. While we deteriorate alongside of Pacino's cop, the psychological ramifications take center stage and the murder mysteries slip to the side. When the big one is resolved, we were too confused to care.
The emphasis on the psychological also means there is very little that we can tell you about a story which drops it's big plot twist on you early in the story. We are in Nightmule Alaska, in the time of year called Midnight Sun. Sure the sun sets, technically, but it never drops below the horizon and there is always a glaring white cast to the sky. For the LAPD Detectives, Will (Pacino) and Hap (Martin Donovan), the body clock cannot adapt. The pair have been asked up to Alaska to aid in a local murder investigation. They are more than willing to do this since Internal Affairs is making a big stink down in the Big Orange about some of their past cases. Hap is worried. Will, a legendary cop whose work is studied in Academies all over the country, knows politics and rookie jitters when he sees them.
The murder in Alaska is unique. The body has been meticulously washed, cleaned, and trimmed to remove all possible genetic traces and most of the physical clues. Nightmule isn't a big town. It isn't going to take long to figure the killing out but when a trap is laid, things go horribly wrong. One cop will die and one poor detective will fight for six straight days to try to get a good night's sleep. He'll tape the windows, pull the shades, tear up the sheets to block the windows, plan blackmail of some high school kid in need of anger management courses, find himself the target of blackmail by a hack mystery novelist who lives in the town and, more to the point, will learn never -- we repeat NEVER get on the wrong side of a log jam. You'll know what we mean when you see it.
Robin Williams appears so late in the story that we won't spill what surprises are left about his role. The bulk of the story that remains, that we've told you about, rests on Hillary Swank's shoulders, because something about the death of that cop doesn't ring true to her. By the time she figures it out, with extraordinary and unbelievable good luck riding along side her, Insomnia has pushed you so far into the mental confusion of lack of sleep that Nolan has achieved his goal and defeated the story. Then again, if you are lured in and manage to hang on, the back end of Insomnia is as ironic as it is a fit only for film student analysis.
We don't do that here.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Insomnia, he would have paid . . .
Maura Tierney runs the lodge where our cops stay and her job is to make
the point that even the locals don't sleep well when the sun doesn't set. She
is greatly under used.
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