Insomnia (2002)

By Afra Nariman

Insomnia (2002)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank

Plot Summary

A veteran police detective named Will Dormer (played by Al Pacino) is sent to an Alaskan town to help investigate the recent murder of a teenage girl. This crime drama quickly becomes a psychological thriller as well when things begin to go not as planned. Dormer’s lack of sleep complicates everything even further, until he finds himself playing games with the murder’s primary suspect, a man named Walter Finch (played by Robin Williams). Dormer’s conscience suffers at the same rate as his psyche’s stability deteriorates, leading to an intense and thrilling story.


The first inclination you get that Insomnia is a great film comes well before it even begins. All you need to know is that it’s a mystery/thriller directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Al Pacino and Robin Williams. Need I say more? Probably not, but I’ll say just a bit more about the film.

You can tell it’s early Nolan and you can see from this film, along with his other early films, what kind of filmmaker Nolan would eventually become. Although not quite as extravagant as his more recent, mind-boggling films such as Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk; Insomnia is also visually stunning at times. It’s combination of intense, rising music and some incredible cinematography is able to capture Nolan’s vision for this remake of a psychological thriller. The cinematographic incorporation of the small snippets of flashbacks that blind Pacino as he is succumbing to extreme exhaustion and delirium, is brilliantly adherent to the overall tone and intensity of a thriller.

The film follows a detective named Will Dormer (Al Pacino) who has arrived in an Alaskan town (where it never gets dark), and is asked to track down the killer of a local teenage girl. Excessively lacking sleep due to the never-ending brightness of days in Alaska at that time of year, coupled with his roaming, guilty conscience for mistakingly shooting a fellow cop; Dormer slowly finds his way on the path to finding the killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams). Pacino’s character is ridiculously tired the entire film, and only gets more and more exhausted as the film progresses. Some people may think that his sluggishness makes the story drag on, but I believe it adds another element to the film. His inability to walk straight, see clearly and focus hard makes this film dilute from being just an action film of a cop chasing a killer. It adds a layer of suspense on top of an already extremely suspenseful movie.

Films like Insomnia can sometimes become too much about the action or even just about the chase, but this film manages to balance that with an additional plot-line of uncovering Will Dormer’s past, understanding who he is and why he makes the choices he does — and following his slow decent into psychological impairment. Nothing comes easy for him in the story. His lack of sleep has impaired his ability to know what the right thing to do is. One notable thing about the film is that it’s not afraid to introduce intense peaks early on, such as when Dormer accidentally shoots his partner and then covers it up. From this moment on, we are no longer just watching the case of the murder of a teenage girl unfold on screen, but also watching Dormer’s conscience unravel and another detective named Ellie (Hilary Swank) slowly uncover the truth of what Dormer has done. We are constantly kept on our toes in both storylines. By giving our “protagonist” a moral dilemma to deal with aside from just a murder case to solve, makes Dormer’s character that much more interesting and controversial. He goes back and forth on what the right thing to do is. In the end, he does the right thing and leaves Ellie with a simple message:

“Don’t lose your way.”

That seems to sum up Dormer’s dilemma. He knowingly had lost his way. Not only with covering up the death of his partner at his hands and then partly striking a deal with Finch, but admittedly also with a case from his past where he planted evidence to prove a case against a child murderer who didn’t have enough evidence against him to lock him away. In both instances he justified himself with the age-old saying “The end justifies the means.” Although in some cases it may be the right thing to do, it’s a slippery slope and the line that you need not cross is too thin; the vision and judgement of your conscience eventually becomes compromised, and you will no longer objectively know right from wrong — you will lose your way.

The best thing about Insomnia is how suspenseful it is for it’s entirety. Almost every scene is wholly gripping and has your eyes, ears and brain completely glued, hooked and utterly focused on what’s happening on screen. It seems like every second of the film feels important. It also allows emotional moments to stick and linger, which pulls us even further into the story. The Alaskan setting serves the story extremely well. The constant brightness makes it unclear at times what time of the day it is. There is a darkness surrounding the story, but we only see blinding brightness on the screen. The small town, the scenery, it all plays into the story’s effectiveness. One of the most gripping scenes of the film is when Dormer is chasing Finch and they start running on countless logs spread on top of the ocean water. Dormer falls in and is trapped under tons of huge logs, in freezing cold water. It is the Alaskan setting that offers natural, isolated and unique instances like that and others, that make this film so immersive.

You’ll come for the cast, and stay for the effectiveness of the story. Insomnia is a gripping thriller and an incredible example of the promise that Christopher Nolan showed early in his filmmaking career. Pacino, Williams and Swank all performed great. The cinematography and sound mixing help create the aura of mystery, suspense and instability around the film. Your eyes are glued to your screen for the full two hours. Nolan’s third film may not be one of his best, but it is as gripping as you would expect.


Rating: 3 out of 4.

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