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'Insomnia' takes Al Pacino deep into perils of non-sleep

Friday, May 24, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Al Pacino can't sleep, and it's not because he ordered a violent purge of his family's enemies. That was 30 years ago, when he played Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" and lost not a minute of shut-eye in the process.


RATING: R for language, some violence and brief nudity.

STARRING: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank.

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan.

WEB SITE: dontcloseyoureyes



His latest film, "Insomnia," puts Pacino on the other side of both the law and his conscience as Los Angeles police detective Will Dormer. He is sent to Alaska with his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), to help local officials find a teen-age girl's killer. But a stakeout on a foggy beach goes awry and, in the confusion, Will shoots at a shadow and kills the wrong person. He then begins covering up for himself, even though what happened was clearly an accident.

He has his reasons. Dormer was sent to Alaska in part to avoid uncomfortable questions back home. This incident can only make things worse. But so does the cover-up. He can't avoid feelings of guilt, intensified by his inability to sleep due to the midnight sun. He has problems covering up his hotel windows, too.

More important, he leaves an opening for the suspect, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), to exploit. After several insinuating phone conversations -- some of them in the sleepless hours -- the two men meet on a ferry, where Finch makes sure Dormer realizes they are in the same boat. I can help you, he says, but you have to help me. Dormer's growing exhaustion further muddles his thought processes.

"Insomnia" was adapted by screenwriter Hillary Seitz from a 1997 Norwegian film that starred Stellan Skarsgard. It is easy to see why it appealed to director Christopher Nolan. His previous film, "Memento," featured Guy Pearce as a man looking for his wife's killer even though he couldn't remember anything for more than 15 minutes.

Like Dormer, the Pearce character is working in a kind of mental fog and a psychological conundrum. Unlike Dormer, he doesn't know the effect of his own actions. As Nolan puts it, Pearce is trying to remember. Pacino is trying to forget.

"Insomnia" invites us to speculate on just how deep a hole Dormer might dig for himself, how muddled his judgment will become, how much his guilty conscience might be guiding his actions, how far he is willing to go.

Maybe we should ask how far the filmmakers were willing to go. Much of the psychological pressure lifts after a confessional scene between Dormer and a hotel employee portrayed by Maura Tierney. The ending turns into a more standard hunter-and-hunted scenario with a strong measure of redemption.

Still, "Insomnia" is one of the more intelligent, well-acted and psychologically intriguing movies you'll see from a major Hollywood studio, especially coming in the midst of the summer blitz of special-effects movies.

Nolan focuses his camera on Pacino's increasingly haggard face. Like the light of the midnight sun, it leaves him no place to hide. It bores in on him, often in tight closeups and almost never in the same frame with another character except, tellingly, on the ferry with the villain. Pacino doesn't chew the scenery, as he is wont to do -- the icy gray majesty of British Columbia, doubling for Alaska, is too big even for him -- but gives one of his more interior performances of late, a brilliant detective slowly unraveling.

Williams, usually such a busy actor -- as if his body is hopelessly trying to keep up with his lightning-paced inventiveness -- takes himself down to the quiet core of malignancy as Finch, his voice both incriminating and intimate, his face giving little away.

Hilary Swank has the toughest task as Ellie Burr, the callow young Alaskan police officer who idolizes Dormer. She could easily have been swallowed up by such a role or overshadowed by Pacino, but Swank gives her the professionalism and the determination to follow through on her investigation of the beach shooting, even if it leads somewhere she would rather not go.

Nobody was asleep at the switch here, which is one reason "Insomnia" keeps the audience alert.

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