A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 486 – Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia (2002) – June 29th, 2011

We bought this on the strength of the cast, which looked excellent. I knew very little about it aside from that it was a thriller/crime drama/murder mystery. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of crime dramas out there. But then we realized this evening that it was directed by Christopher Nolan, which, along with the cast, elevates it quite a bit on potential alone. And that was really all I knew going into this tonight. Run time, basic plot concept, cast and director. That sort of stuff. And knowing it was Christopher Nolan, I admit my expectations went up a good deal.

I wish I could say that the movie completely lived up to those expectations, but it’s not quite there. Oh, it’s not that it doesn’t work. I was just hoping for more twisty-turny psychological effects of the film’s gimmick. After all, part of the conceit of the story is that the main character, Detective Dormer, doesn’t sleep at all through the entire movie, which takes place over the course of a week. The murder mystery takes place in northern Alaska in the summer and the sun doesn’t really go down. The brightness coming in around the curtains of his hotel windows keeps Dormer awake through the night, leaving him bleary and confused during the day. Not the best mental state to be in when investigating a murder.

I would not be able to live in Alaska in the summer. My sleeping habits are atypical at best – I’m nocturnal and I’ve dealt with insomnia in the past – and the idea of having perpetual daylight and not being able to sleep? I’ve been in that state where you’re so tired you can’t trust what you’re seeing and you still can’t sleep and you would give anything to just get a few minutes. If you’ve never experienced it I don’t recommend intentionally trying it. We sleep for a reason. And this movie does an excellent job portraying the experience of being sleep deprived. Dormer focuses on sounds and the world recedes and he sees people where people aren’t. The thing is, while the cinematography showcases the visual effects well and the sound department did a fantastic job with the audio effects and Al Pacino gives an admirable performance, I felt like the movie could have gone further. It could have used the confusion more explicitly in places.

Part of Pacino’s character’s story is that he’s doing things that good cops don’t do. He’s acting questionably. And throughout the movie I had the suspicion that some of what he was doing could be attributed to sleep deprivation and unclear thinking. But then the movie goes and says no, not necessarily. Which means that the effects I was hoping for from the sleep deprivation aren’t so much from the sleep deprivation, which means I think that aside from Pacino’s performance and the handful of explicit moments of visual and audio confusion, it doesn’t so much affect the actual plot as much as I wanted. One thing it does do, however, is provide a link between Dormer and his prime suspect, author Walter Finch.

Finch calls Dormer in the middle of the night, talking to him about how isolated you feel when you’re awake that late. How it seems like you’re the only person in the world. This late night call connects the two and introduces Finch to the audience. And he has a good reason to be calling Dormer: He believes they’re alike in more than just their inability to sleep. He sees them both as accidental killers, unintentionally causing people they cared about to lose their lives. Because he saw Dormer and his partner in the fog, when they were out looking for him. And he saw Dormer take aim at his partner and fire. And he saw Dormer’s partner try to get away from him and he saw Dormer hold him as he died. So the movie links the two men, the detective and his suspect, through both action and reaction. Through manslaughter and insomnia and guilt.

The story follows Dormer as he goes to Alaska to help investigate the murder of a young woman, but that’s not really the story on its own. Because Dormer’s problems in LA, where he’s from, don’t go away just because he’s been sent north. He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs. His partner has decided he has no choice but to cut a deal. And Dormer knows that this will not go well for him. It colors every move he makes. Every decision. Which is what makes the whole insomnia aspect not matter as much as I want it to. The things Dormer does and doesn’t do and his reasoning for everything could well have happened back in LA, without the sunlit nights and lack of sleep. The only thing that really seems extreme for him is when he shoots his partner, and that happens well before he’s so sleep deprived that he’s seeing things. I guess I just don’t feel like the movie took its hook and fit it well enough into its plot.

Now, Dormer and Finch? They are very nicely built characters with lots of motivation and personality. And Pacino and Williams play their roles extremely well. I do love seeing Robin Williams do roles that don’t depend on his manic comedy persona. But there are a number of minor roles that could have been more fleshed out. There’s the murder victim’s abusive boyfriend, whom we only meet a few times before he’s framed for his girlfriend’s murder. There’s the innkeeper for the lodge where Dormer is staying, who listens to him and talks to him and tells him how there are two kinds of people who live in Alaska: People who were born there and people who came there to get away from something. And there’s the local detective, Ellie Burr (played by Hilary Swank), who’s followed Dormer’s career for years and is eager to prove herself both to him and in general. And I wanted more meat for all three of those characters. They could have figured in a lot more and for the latter two it seems like they really should have. Burr is such a pivotal figure in a lot of what happens at the climax of the film and the innkeeper has some lines that suggest that she’s meant to mean a lot more than she does. It’s frustrating, feeling like I’m missing bits for them.

All that being said, despite my criticisms of the spare treatment of a few characters and the uneven handling of hook vs. plot, I really did enjoy this movie. It’s visually gorgeous, and not just because of the beautiful scenery. It’s superbly acted and while I would have liked the plot to be better dealt with in places the actual lines as written all work on their own. I loved seeing the play between Dormer and Finch and how they interacted. I loved seeing Burr figure out much of the puzzle on her own. And I had to take some extra time to think about it before I could finish my review. Which is something I don’t usually allow myself but I really didn’t want to rush this one and I still feel like I haven’t done it justice. I wish it had been better, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.

June 29, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , ,

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