(Part of the ongoing Noirvember series. Click on the tag to see more)
While Memento gets more plaudits for its inventive storytelling, and the Batman series earned him his chops, I think Insomnia is Christopher Nolan’s best entry into the noir genre. It proves that, even without the framing device of Memento, Nolan can still tell stories of tension, uncertainty, and redemption in a gray world. Add to that an unorthodox setting and a phenomenal cast and you have a story that embodies one of the classic tropes of noir: a man struggling with a moral dilemma, alone in a sea of friendly faces.
Pacino makes a return to the restrained intensity of his Godfather days, saving the occasional raspy yell for emotional climaxes. He plays Will Dormer, a legendary Los Angeles police detective who’s out of his element, investigating a murder in an Alaskan town during a season where the sun stays up for 24 hours. His dislocation and his fatigue cause him to make a tragic mistake very early on in the assignment – a mistake that the murderer witnesses and exploits. And Dormer’s helpless against it, because he knows that the truth in a case like this isn’t as important as the perception of the truth. The perception can take on a life of its own, an image that detaches from the object it reflects until it becomes a hallucination. In this way, Dormer becomes a prisoner of everyone’s perception of him: the fellow officer, the suffering insomnia victim, the exemplary investigator.
Robin Williams – who should honestly give up on comic roles – astounded me as the murderer. Given his background, the temptation must have been strong to play Finch like a megalomaniac or an unhinged lunatic. But it’s the smarmy calm that makes him a perfect villain. He’s spent his whole life constructing neat little murder narratives, and now one’s been handed to him like a present. He shares observation after observation about the nature of death, killing, and crime. His benign pedantry sounds harmless, almost profound, until you remind yourself that he’s talking about something he’s actually done. It helps that he has the rasping, businesslike Pacino to play off of. “You’re my job,” Pacino observes. “You’re what I’m paid to do. You’re about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fucking plumber.”
Hillary Swank walks a line that’s tough for younger actors to manage: coming off as enthusiastic without being cloying. She clearly has a spine to her, and Nolan does a good job setting her up as a woman apart, isolated from her colleagues by the devotion she applies to the most mundane tasks. She worships Dormer, but as a source of wisdom, not with the infatuation of a child.
Given the wordiness of Nolan’s later films, it’s amazing how much of Insomnia gets by with wordless shots, especially considering that it’s a police procedural where everyone acts alone. Dormer has to cover up his crime by himself; Burr (Swank) has to investigate the one unresolved detail by herself. Yet there are no voice-overs, no self-narration to bring the audience along. We reach every conclusion at the same time our protagonists do, or perhaps a second afterward. Like them, we have no one to bounce ideas off of. We can’t comfort ourselves with the sound of our voice, or another’s voice, and so we’re left with an icy riverbed, an apartment hallway, a dead dog in an alley.