“You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill somebody.” – Robin Williams as Walter Finch
As I come to understand it, calling Christopher Nolan’s film a remake of the Norwegian thriller of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgaard is not exactly fair. As a director with a singular artistic vision of his own, it’s only fair to say his thriller set in the icy outskirts of an Alaskan fishing village is a re-imagining of the material.
His tale follows a jaded sage of a L.A. cop who comes with his partner on a reassignment, but Dormer (Al Pacino) is also running away from something — something that undoubtedly has major repercussions on not only his life, but the case he is about to be met with.
Getting acclimated to Nightmute is no easy task. The town is quiet and the local police are nice enough, including Bill’s old buddy and the overly zealous but industrious rookie Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). To her, the estimable Will Dormer is a legend, the man you only read about in case files, not actually witness in person. She holds that kind of awe for him, but he just takes it in stride as he and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) go about their business
Worst of all is the perpetual daylight. It’s something we take for granted, but in this story, the sun never truly sets. It’s always there. There’s no relief and, in a sense, it haunts Dormer. He struggles to sleep, he struggles when he is awake, because he hasn’t been able to sleep, and then the title Insomnia begins to make so much sense. It’s perpetuated to the extent that we begin to feel its effects on us as an audience. The story wears us down, making us into jaded individuals like Dormer (strikingly close to Dormir) and the fact that Al Pacino half-whispers his dialogue with his methodical delivery only aggravates the situation. Our vision is clouded just as much as his.
Set pieces are relatively few, but they are used to great effect. The ones that come to mind are a chase that ensues in the thick Alaskan fog, where the pursuer all too quickly becomes the helpless victim, the paranoia leading to a lapse of judgment. Another equally gripping chase sequence takes place over floating logs and that’s the first time we actually catch a glimpse of Walter Finch (Robin Williams).
Otherwise, Insomnia is all about the mind games, as fatigue sets in and Dormer must reconcile all he knows and does. Maybe his lapse of judgment was really his innate desire, but the dividing lines are blurring.
Moral ambiguity becomes of great interest because in some ways our main players really are not all that different. Dormer has sidestepped protocol in order for his brand of justice can be enacted — the justice he thinks the people want. And he may be right, but there are consequences for any act and he quickly learns what that means for him.
By the end, we hardly know who is in the right and I think Dormer is as confused as us — or otherwise he’s just too exhausted by this point to care either way. Robin Williams gives a surprisingly chilling and generally subdued performance. He is our villain in the general sense, but his villain looks suspiciously like a twisted, sick little man. Perhaps a far scarier reality.
Insomnia is the story of Will Dormer and Walter Finch getting twisted up in knots, and in both cases, each man loses a little more of their sanity. It’s in the film’s climatic moments that Ellie must make a choice, and Will implores her to make the right one. She’s the purest, most innocent character in this narrative, and if she falters then there is little hope. But Will succeeds in protecting the last shred of decency that still exists. A small victory, given his circumstances, but a victory nonetheless.