Christopher Nolan has a monumental filmography full of lofty cerebral ideas, superheroes mythic in nature, and incredibly complex morality plays. The one time he hit the road in a straight line is Insomnia, a fairly standard cat and mouse thriller given the obvious boost of having Chris at the helm, as well as two actors who get dangerously out of control, in the best possible way. Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, an L.A. cop who treks out to small town Alaska to solve the mystery of a murdered local girl. The twist: they’re in the region where it’s daylight for a month straight, and if that’s something you’re not accustomed to, it’ll throw you way off. It’s fascinating to watch Pacino roll in sharp as a razor and completely in control, then observe his lack of sleep eat away at the frills of his perception and start to play tricks on his weary mind. The film has one of those narratives that gives us a heads up as to who the killer is nearly right off the bat, in this case personified by Stephen King esque novelist Walter Finch, played by a vastly creepy Robin Williams. He and Pacino do an eerie dance through the foggy local geography and small, gaunt townscape, Pacino looking for clues and proof while trying to hold onto his sanity, and Williams unnervingly playing a macabre mind game, perhaps only for his own amusement. There are shades of Vincent Hanna in Pacino’s work here, the extremely stressed out LA detective from Michael Mann’s Heat. One gets a sense of the same world weariness and feral ferocity of that character, especially in a heartbreaking monologue to the local innkeeper, played by underrated Maura Tierney, who is brilliant in the scene that requires her mostly to listen, a much harder task than delivering any page of dialogue. As for Williams, he’s never really done anything this specific before. I mean, he’s played freaks and villains all across the board, but none quite like Walter Finch. He’s detached in a way that still clings to a humanity he may have lost through so many years writing stories that only happened in his head. He’s both dangerous and rational, and when those two are fuelled by emotional trauma… watch out, because there’s damage to be done. There’s further work from Hilary Swank as Will’s partner, Nicky Katt, Emily Perkins, Martin Donovan and edgy Vancouverite Katherine Isabelle, who just excels in anything, here playing the murder victim’s troubled best friend.
Now, this film is based on a chilly Swedish thriller of the same title, starring Stellen Skarsgard in Pacino’s role, and Williams nowhere to be found, naturally. I connected with Nolan’s version far more, the original seeming rather bland and lacking personality, but it’s got a huge following and a Criterion release, so what the hell do I know, go see for yourself. I do know that nothing stands up the hairs on my neck quite like the portentous back and forth between Pacino and Williams here, the icy inaccessibility of the central mystery and the feeling that there’s always something bubbling just below the surface of a seemingly civilized interaction. Barring Memento, which even rose to flights of fancy, this is the most down to earth Nolan has ever been in his exploration of the psychological landscape. Dreams, outer space, damaged memory and morality are for another day here. It strips away any of that, leaves it’s characters stranded in a misty, threatening environment that mirrors their own starkly layered perception, and sits back to observe. Rats in a maze of the human mind, if you will. It’s an important film in Nolan’s career for this very reason; a departure from ambitions grandiose in nature, a vacation from fantasy, and a forceful glimpse at two men with minds holding on by just a thread, like a spider’s web, beaded with dew in perpetual sunlight that refuses to set and give them solace. A masterwork of tension, with few instances of release.