Crime drama doesn't get much better than this. Director Christopher Nolan, awarded access to big stars and a big budget after making indie waves with the record-breaking "Memento," proves a worthy steward of his industry's faith with "Insomnia," a taut, fully realized thriller that's destined for canonization by suspense buffs and Art-heads alike.
Called to Alaska to solve the murder of a teen-age girl, Los Angeles cop Will Dormer (Al Pacino) finds more waiting for him than a routine investigation. While in pursuit of the culprit, he mistakenly shoots and kills his partner (Martin Donovan) -- a fatal error that would ordinarily be considered a tragic accident, but for the Internal Affairs investigation the two men are facing back home. Instead of admitting what happened, Dormer gives a false report and tampers with the evidence, trying to place the blame for the killing on the unknown assailant while avoiding the inevitable suspicion that he intentionally silenced his comrade.
The only man who knows the truth is Dormer's chief suspect, mystery novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams), with whom the detective enters into a necessary but distrustful symbiosis. As their precarious relationship develops, Dormer's already impaired judgment is further clouded by his inability to get a good night's sleep in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Adapted by screenwriter Hillary Seitz from an unremittingly bleak Norwegian feature of the same name, "Insomnia" pulls off the rare feat of expanding and Americanizing foreign material without dumbing it down. The character of Dormer is more conflicted and less corrupt than Jonas Engstršm, his counterpart in the original, but only because Engstršm was one of the most irredeemable protagonists in all of film. (False report or no, the cops in stateside movies simply don't shoot dogs dead to make a fresh bullet look used, as Engström did.) Pacino at first seems to be falling back on familiar tropes -- getting to wear that damned black leather jacket must be written into his contract by now -- but continued attention reveals that his Dormer is less a retread than the fully rendered portrayal of a lawman this actor has been working toward in lesser pictures like "Heat". Williams, meanwhile, is just sublime, the creepy but pathetic Finch his best pure performance since his uncredited supporting role in "Dead Again" 11 years ago.
The film absolutely swims in Wally Pfister's extraordinary cinematography -- quite literally, in the case of one classic chase scene that will surely traumatize anyone who harbors a phobia of water. Elsewhere, Nolan and Pfister are so successful at illustrating the effects of Dormer's sleep deprivation that it's hard to leave the theater without feeling woozy oneself.
My sole quibble with "Insomnia" is probably unfair, but, like Dormer's nighttime agitation, it won't go away. In "Memento" and his earlier "Following," Nolan played novel games with narrative construction that are nowhere represented in the new film's conventional forward progression. He's either worried that a mass audience won't follow an atypical story structure or distancing himself from the persistent criticisms that "Memento" was more trick than movie. I hope it's not the latter. Film is by definition a trick -- a series of still photographs passing themselves off as a moving image -- and Nolan has been the best director since Tarantino to explore its potential as modern-day sleight-of-hand. "Insomnia" is the work of an artist supreme, but part of me still hopes that he puts his magician's hat back on before again taking his place behind the camera.