Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Movie Review: Insomnia

It's rare to watch a crime drama that does not have its share of tired cliches woven into the plot. Insomnia, starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, is no exception.

To list a few: an aging and jaded cop—Pacino's Will Dormer—haunted by a case from his past; a supposedly highly intelligent perpetrator of a gruesome crime who engages the lead investigator in a psychological duel, initiating the "game" via unexpected phone calls; a female police officer who decides to take it upon herself to head out alone to collect some evidence from a potentially dangerous suspect, thus setting up the climax.

Bolstered by a handful of Academy award nominations, I had high expectations for this film.

A murder has taken place in a small town in Alaska and the local hick investigators are having problems solving the crime. Called in to help from Los Angeles, Will Dormer along with his partner Hap Eckhart (played by Martin Donovan) have an internal affairs investigation hanging over their heads back in the City of Angels, with a likely deal to be cut by Eckhart meaning that Dormer's reputation will be ruined. The result is antagonism from Dormer towards his partner that is subordinated with an ostensible professionalism and desire to solve the case with which they were sent to help.

The legend Dormer quickly puts together a ploy to snag the killer (another cliche—an obvious lure that is fed to the media and which the killer quickly falls for) and the locals and the 2 LA detectives descend on the scene of the plant. It seems the school bag of the teenaged girl who has been murdered was already found. Let's replace the contents with rocks, put it back where we found it and let the media report that if we really find it we should be able to crack the case. A shadowy figure promptly appears as the cops look on from their hiding spots and Dormer mistakenly plugs his partner as they chase down the killer in the fog. The killer gets away and Dormer lets the assumption stand that the brutal murderer also topped his partner.

This is really no more than a 2nd rate crime flick with the added scthick being that Dormer is unable to sleep during his time in the fictional Alaskan town of Nightmute. Haunted by his past, what has just occurred and the 24 hours of daylight that is part of life during the summer months in the far north, Dormer starts to come unhinged.

It's as if the director, Christopher Nolan, decided to add the additional bit about being unable to sleep so as to provide a plausible cover for Pacino's sleepwalking performance. Except for a few exceptions, Pacino has been coasting through a series of roles in the past few years and it seems as though the nomination he received for this movie was based on name recognition alone. Sure there are a few flashes of quality acting here and the trademark borderline rages from Pacino, but combined with the fairly lame concept and script, the accolades seem overblown.

The theme is that tried and true crime drama nugget...the past always catches up with you, take one wrong turn and you'll eventually pay the price, the end doesn't justify the means etc.

Robin Williams as the twisted mystery novel writer who thinks he's more clever than he really is, comes off as a caricature of so many similar performances from others in the past. The plaudits apparently flowed because of the contrast of this role compared to the usual characters he takes on, but I just can't see the brilliance every cunt and his movie-watching goldfish chimed in with when Insomnia was released in 2002. The cinematic psycopath and the one-upsmanship involved as subsequent screenwriters try to come up with the perfect non-sequiturs and odd reactions imbued with creepiness has resulted in many implausible and unintentionally amusing performances. It's hard to do well and of course any actor is limited by the dialogue and context with which they are provided.

The instant familiarity as Dormer and Finch settle in for some psychological tete-a-tetes where each professes to be more versed in the ways of the world and the workings of the mind are similarly unlikely. The fact that Dormer seems ready to nod off during these interactions because of his lack of sleep again adds unintended comic relief.

Detective Ellie Burr, played by Hillary Swank, is the local cop, a naive sycophant who looks up to Dormer and is assigned to investigate the shooting of Eckhart as the other more serious investigation continues. At first a cursory job, appearing simpler because of the meddling by Dormer to cover his tracks, Pacino's character at the same time urges her to put more effort into it. The message is clear...Dormer is torn and ultimately wants to be caught, at the same time allowing the young female cop to see the correct path.

Likely Mad magazine did its usual takeoff with this as they do with most Hollywood movies. They must have had a field day with the abundance of material to lampoon this flick. From the dangerously sleep-deprived zombie, Dormer, who turns into a walking disaster while others casually look on, to the amateur local cops who are painfully aware of their own shortcomings. Those cops who are supposedly trained to find murderers, rapists etc., but wait...they're hicks who needed help flown in so they can be forgiven...but then the young female cop inevitably shows her brilliance, but then as mentioned she heads out alone, going against protocol and failing to take a partner just for excitement. The scene where Dormer shoots a dog carcass in a back lane in broad daylight (or is it night?) so as to obtain the bullet to switch with the real one retrieved from his partner's dead body, is another example where the suspension of disbelief didn't work.

There are still some good scenes here and there are certainly others in the genre that are much worse. As a character driven drama, I suppose Insomnia requires a person to be completely taken with Pacino's acting. The disappointment is what sticks here, with Pacino as the conflicted detective not carrying the film (though certainly the dominant performance) as many others have claimed. Though the setting is Alaska, the movie was filmed in British Columbia, Canada, and the beautiful scenery and flat natural lighting add to the atmosphere and is another aspect that at least makes the film worth checking out.