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Review: 'Insomnia' one of year's best

Twists and turns will keep viewers awake -- and edgy


By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Enough with the gee-whiz spider webs and humming light sabers -- Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" is the best movie of the summer, a drum-tight psychological thriller that features a trio of acutely focused actors.

Nolan, who announced himself as a major talent with last year's backward-running indie feature, "Memento," is in the big leagues now. Though "Insomnia" is a relatively mainstream project, he's lost none of his dense narrative control, and he still takes pleasure in tightening the screws on a panicked character, this time courtesy of an environment where the sun literally never sets.

Pacino delivers his best performance in years, as Will Dormer, a veteran Los Angeles police detective who's sent, along with his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), to investigate the brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl in a small Alaskan village. Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister waste no time establishing an ominous tone, as the detectives' seaplane cruises through slate gray skies over a jagged landscape of ice and snow.

Throughout the picture, Nolan makes the most of city-slicker Pacino negotiating such inhospitable territory. Throw in the disorienting sunlight that keeps Dormer awake for days on end, and you have a cop who's ready to crash and burn.

Fog and cover-ups

Al Pacino is not himself 



All about Al Pacino 
All about Robin Williams 
All about Hilary Swank 

Dormer is greeted when he steps off the plane by Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), a bright-eyed local police officer who knows everything about his legendary career. But Ellie doesn't know that Dormer and Eckhart are under investigation back in L.A., and Eckhart is ready to cut a deal.

Dormer, who's convinced that a bit of dicey police work he performed years earlier will be uncovered if Hap talks, is a great deal less than pleased with the situation. Later, while pursuing the girl's suspected murderer (Robin Williams) through dense fog, Dormer accidentally shoots and kills Hap.

Knowing how it will look if he confesses, he claims that the suspect did the shooting, then proceeds with the investigation. However, a surprise phone call from the soft-spoken murderer puts another twist on the story: he saw what Dormer did, and suggests a cooperative cover-up of their crimes.

Dormer, against his better judgment, considers the options. He's found his killer, all right, but he starts to unravel after becoming one himself.

"Insomnia" is a very loose adaptation of a terrific 1998 Norwegian film starring Stellan Skarsgard. (See Paul Tatara's review of the Norwegian film.) Though Skarsgard's detective is something of an overt nutcase, Pacino drags around like a sleep-deprived drunk. Hillary Seitz's script scrubs off some of the character's rough edges (Skarsgard gropes a pretty young witness; Pacino just psychologically abuses her), but you're still privy to a man grinding himself into a powder.

Pacino also keeps his recent penchant for needless shouting in check. There's not a move in his performance that isn't geared toward illuminating Dormer's inner journey.

Shifty Williams, first-rate Swank

It's good to have Al back, and the same goes for Williams, who had all but worn out his welcome with a series of nauseatingly sincere, dew-eyed comic roles. For once, we have a movie psycho who seems to have never heard of Hannibal Lecter.

Williams' madman, a lonely novelist named Walter Finch, is presented as a decent person who unexpectedly discovers his inner killer. Williams is great during face-to-face meetings with Pacino, during which Finch tries to nurture an emotional connection with the very man who may send him to prison.

Swank is also first-rate, although it seems likely many people will miss the complexity of her supporting turn. When things get dark (figuratively speaking, of course) Ellie supplies a grounding dose of human decency. Just as she did in "Boys Don't Cry," Swank lets compassion bubble to the surface under very ugly circumstances. That's not an easy thing to pull off, especially in a film that's so lacking a clear-cut "good guy."

"Insomnia" is the sort of picture big studios used to make when they still believed they could take audiences on a ride without rubbing their faces in digital gloss. Nolan gets a little edit-happy in the early going -- the fog-shrouded shooting contains so many cross-cuts it seems cobbled together, rather than designed -- but he quickly calms down. A foot chase between Pacino and Williams across some logs as they float down a river is presented with the utmost precision and visual dexterity.

Nolan is a craftsman who joins the ranks of Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, Curtis Hanson, and M. Night Shyamalan as an individual voice working within the Hollywood system. I can't wait to see what he does next.

"Insomnia" is disturbing, but not incredibly violent, all things considered. You catch fleeting glimpses of the pivotal murder, a few people get shot, a dead dog is shot, and Swank gets belted in the mouth. This one, incredibly enough, is about adults, and was actually made for them too.


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