The 1997 Norwegian character study Insomnia has a lot in common with the original version of The Vanishing, from its bleak atmosphere to its internally driven performances to its unsettling ending. So naturally, it makes sense that someone in Hollywood would want to remake this one as well. And just as naturally, it's a given that the studio (Warner Bros., in this case) would botch this one as well, completely missing the air of unease that made the original so creepily memorable.
Whoops, not so fast. The new Insomnia is a surprisingly faithful remake of its chilly predecessor, and when it does elect to head off in its own direction, it employs changes that fit it well -- that still work within the context of the storyline -- rather than ones that were imposed for the sake of commercial sensibilities. And while nothing in this production quite matches the ferocious intensity provided by Stellen Skarsgard's excellent performance in the first picture, it compensates by featuring two often ill-used Hollywood stars -- Al Pacino and Robin Williams -- doing some of their best work in years.
With rare exception, Pacino -- 70s icon, 90s ham -- has been so over-the-top during the last two decades, it's almost a revelation to see him turn in a performance that reminds us that when he puts his mind to it, he can hang with the best of 'em. Here, he's quietly powerful as Will Dormer, and yes, that last name, similar to the Latin word (and its subsequent spin-offs in French and Spanish, among others) meaning "to sleep," is no accident. A good LA cop who's nevertheless at the center of an Internal Affairs investigation for possibly stepping outside the law to ensure that certain criminals don't end up walking the streets again, Dormer finds himself and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) being sent to Alaska to investigate a small-town murder and, just as importantly, to get him out of the IA spotlight for the moment. Dormer would have trouble sleeping anyway, but under the seasonal Alaskan sun, which shines bright for 24 hours a day (although the locals are quick to point out that it's preferable to those weeks when it's nighttime around the clock), he finds it all but impossible to even close his eyes.
Regardless, he and Hap, with the eager assistance of local rookie detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), plunge into the death of a pretty high school senior. The locals think the deceased's boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson) might have been involved, but Dormer's instincts tell him otherwise. He sets a trap for the killer, but circumstances get out of hand, the murderer escapes, and a cop ends up dead.
Plagued by bad luck that doggedly clings to him like clothes static in a dryer, and wracked by guilt over the unfortunate turn of events, Dormer begins to allow his fatigue to dictate his actions, even to the point where he enters into an unorthodox partnership of sorts with the case's primary suspect, a local author named Walter Finch (Williams). What follows is a decidedly twisted game of cat and mouse, although who's playing the rodent and who's essaying the part of the feline is constantly in flux.
Insomnia is directed by Christopher Nolan, the man responsible for last year's best picture, Memento. Initially, his choice of follow-up might come as a disappointment to his fans: Memento (as well as his debut flick, the no-budget Following) was such a twist-laden slice of neo-noir that this movie's comparatively straightforward narrative may seem as sleepy as its central protagonist and therefore dismissed as a more conventional crime pic not worthy of Nolan's active imagination.
But look closer and it's easy to see the allure the project held for Nolan: Like Memento, Insomnia is a grim story about a man whose mind has been so damaged by circumstances beyond his control that even when his ensuing actions are being committed for the sake of a just cause (in both films, solving the murder of an innocent young woman), the erosion of his own ethical resolve leaves everything covered in a thin veneer of immoral grime. Dormer is the Good Samaritan teetering on the brink of eternal damnation, and by smartly beefing up the parts of the murder suspect and the local cop (much smaller roles in the original film) so that they resemble the proverbial angel and devil perched on a protagonist's shoulders, scripter Hillary Seitz has turned the movie into a Faustian morality play as much as anything else. For all his protestations, Walter Finch is a sly villain, and Williams locates the right tone of slippery menace to make evil seem seductive and playful. Ellie, on the other hand, is presented as a greenhorn so naive, she initially has trouble believing her hero Will Dormer could possibly be anything less than a real-life Dick Tracy; Swank's earnest portrayal grounds what could have been a ludicrous character and turns her into a credible manifestation of Dormer's nobler instincts.
With very little gunplay, lots of character introspection, and a pace that the less charitable might describe as glacial, the adult-oriented Insomnia seems like an odd movie to be released on Memorial Day weekend, a period more noted for officially kicking off the summer with plenty of FX-friendly films aimed at teens and families. Then again, that approach burdened us with Pearl Harbor at this time last year, so this season's menu change is just one of several things to celebrate over the long holiday weekend. *