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Hillary Swank as neophyte
Detective Ellie Burr --
not your 90210 babe!

Insomnia (2002) starstarstarstar

Reviewed 2001-06-09
: I used to bite my nails. That must mean I'm nervous, or that I get nervous in certain situations. But watching Insomnia cured me: I have no fingernails left to bite!

Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is reassigned to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in a small Alaska town, at a season when the sun never sets lower than dusk. He and his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are leaving their home district of Los Angeles just ahead of an Internal Affairs investigation that may ruin Will's distinguished career. The partners are joined by an Alaskan police rookie (Hillary Swank, formerly of Beverly Hills 90210), who's dying to see some action and is thrilled to be working with her idol, Will Dormer. There is tension between the LA partners when Hap says he's going to cooperate with IA, so when the three have the suspected murderer, Walter Finch (a clean-shaven Robin Williams), cornered in a foggy wooded area near a cabin, there is some question about whether Will shoots Hap by accident. What complicates things is not only that Dormer covers up the shooting, but that Finch witnesses the shooting and the cover-up.

Finch escapes, but not from Dormer's life: he alternately taunts Dormer and tries to help him see just how accidental deaths can happen. Finch claims his killing of Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe) was also an accident -- he was just trying to get her to stop laughing at him. All the while the sun's refusal to set affects Dormer emotionally and intellectually -- Dormer's last name is a play on the Spanish verb dormir, "to sleep." When he arrives in Alaska, he looks tired. By the end of the film Dormer looks dead tired. Director Christopher Nolan alternates bright colors with washed-out grays in unrelenting lighting that causes similar ennui in the viewer to that portrayed by Dormer. It's no wonder insomnia catches up to him.

Detective Burr is right behind Dormer because something about his version of Hap's shooting doesn't add up. Dormer is closing in on the elusive Finch, but keeps getting outsmarted and out-maneuvered. The atmospherics and the acting combine to make Insomnia an effective thriller. Hillary Swank does pretty well. But there is an interesting supporting character played by Maura Tierny (of "ER"), who says, "There are two kinds of people in Alaska: those who were born here and those who come here to escape something. I wasn't born here." She seems totally grounded and could have been Dormer's guide out of his insomnia. Pacino slides downhill in fascinating increments. Robin Williams portrays a wily combination of madness and wit.

I won't reveal the ending, but I do have one cavil. When the Swank character backs up the Pacino character in cornering the Williams character, why does she stop in the middle of the action to ask Pacino if his shooting of his partner was an accident? Couldn't that have waited until they caught the bad guy? I guess even the best film can have a dopey moment.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me!

Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.