This, one would think, is a movie with a lot to prove. A remake of a well-respected Norwegian thriller, it is one of a trio of dark roles in which Robin Williams is trying to regain some of the cred he lost with years of Patch Adams-like material. Most importantly, it is the first studio film by Christopher Nolan, director of last year's indie smash Memento.

Fortunately, none of these extra-fictional considerations shows up onscreen in the form of cinematic overreaching. (No, Nolan doesn't re-frame the story so that it's told backwards; in fact, he doesn't play with our sense of time at all.) For the viewer in a certain frame of mind, this chip-on-shoulder factor heightens the unspoken, but omnipresent desperation of the film's lead character, played by Al Pacino.

Pacino's Will Donner is not only a legendary detective but also an honest cop. He has secrets, though, that could destroy his life's work — and Walter Finch (Williams), the murderer Donner is trying to catch, knows one of them. Early on, Finch approaches Donner with the old "you and I have things in common; we can help each other" line. Donner's having none of it, but he doesn't know how to get Finch without committing career suicide.

If Donner's reasoning is strained, his body isn't making things better. For this case, the detective has been sent far from home, to a latitude so far north that the summer sun never sets. He can't get used to the constant daylight, so for the week or so he spends here, he's unable to sleep. He can walk the lonely streets at sunny 4 a.m., and tape the shade to his hotel room window to keep out stray beams of light (haven't these people heard of heavy velvet drapes?), but he can't turn off his brain behind closed eyes. Finch, having experienced this himself some time ago, offers his sympathy while exploiting Donner's frazzled state.

It's in conveying Donner's agitation that Nolan flexes his filmmaking muscles. As Donner's out-of-it-ness increases, Nolan's camera gets a little jumpy. Quick inserted shots and manipulations of light levels test the viewer's ability to maintain focus on the matter at hand. Pacino, who has a tendency to overact at this point in his career, does none of it here; the transition from the smooth, confident character he plays at the start of the tale to the frazzled, uncertain figure at the end happens entirely inside Pacino's body, instead of being projected in big physical gestures.

If one leans toward crediting a director with this restrained performance, further evidence is in Robin Williams' performance. In Death to Smoochy, he was less an actor than a performer, jiving his way through a performance that shouted "look at me!" Here, though, he isn't Robin Williams — he's Walter Finch, and the film is better for his presence.

As for the story itself, there's little about it that really breaks new ground, but the screenplay handles certain detective thriller conventions — the "is the good guy that different from the bad guy?" debate, for instance — far more nimbly than most of its peers. The script introduces supporting characters who seem to be familiar types, but they don't behave in predictable ways; Nicky Katt's grumpy hometown cop, isn't there because the plot needs him to behave in a certain way, but because he's part of the town's landscape.

After this summer's other entry into the "we know who the killer is, but can the cop keep him/herself together long enough to get him?" genre, the dumb, overwrought Murder by Numbers, this film seems like a masterpiece. In the grand scheme of things, Insomnia may not keep you up at night, but it's a smart, sharp ride.

"Excellent indie-to-mainstream transition"
Dir. Christopher Nolan; writ. Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg (original film), Hillary Seitz; feat. Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt (R)

More by John DeFore



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