Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


"A good cop can't sleep because a piece of the puzzles missing. A bad cop can't sleep because his conscience won't let him"

Insomnia is a movie about a man who makes a mistake and becomes a victim of his own moral code. Al Pacino is Will Dormer, a world renowned police detective. Dormer and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), two LA cops are "loaned" to the Nightmute Alaska police department to help solve a difficult murder case. They are greeted by Officer Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank) who is a huge fan of Dormer, having studied all of his cases and read all of his books.

It comes to light at the Department that Dormer is under investigation by IA. Dormer dismisses it as something that will "blow over" The department is thrilled to have them anyway and the chief tells his men to help them however they require. He does have to inform Dormer that IA has required updates on their activities.

Dormer checks out Kay's body, concluding that she's the killer's first victim but there will certainly be more to come.
"He crossed the line and didn't blink. You don't come back from that." he says.

They soon visit Kay's home and gather details about her. He finds a designer dress and some jewelry nicer than her high schooler boyfriend could afford and concludes she had an "admirer" of some kind. He asks if they can go right down to the school and find her boyfriend, seeing bright daylight outside, and is surprised when they inform him that it's 10:00 at night and it doesn't get dark.

Dormer and Hap go out for dinner and discuss the IA investigation. Hap tells Dormer that he's agreed to cut a deal. Dormer tries to talk Hap out of it from many different angles, most prominently, not wanting to damage the cases of everyone he's put away. Hap has already made up his mind though, and Dormer is very upset about his decision. Ellie picks them up in the morning and Dormer asks her about the normal police calls she handles. She tells him that she's only allowed to deal with misdemeanors and Dormer encourages her.
Dormer: You shouldn't knock misdemeanors.
Det. Ellie Burr: Oh, but it's small stuff. It gets so boring.
Dormer: It's all about small stuff. You know, small lies, small mistakes. People give themselves away, same in misdemeanors as they do on murder cases. It's just human nature.

They head to the school to question Randy, Kay's boyfriend. Randy presents a rebellious teenager attitude, lighting a cigarette in the middle of the classroom and trying foolishly to intimidate Dormer with an outburst. Dormer breaks him down pretty quickly telling him that he knows he beat her, and reminding him that he doesn't want to be the last person who saw her.Randy reveals that he knew she was seeing someone else, but couldn't get the information from her.

Dormer dispenses advice to Ellie throughout, the two developing a running joke about Ellie writing what he says down. Dormer and Hap manage to function alright on the job. Kay's bag soon turns up containing her diary and some books. Dormer suggests filling the bag with books and putting it back where it was found while issuing a press release that they're trying to locate it. He plans to catch the killer on his way to recover the bag, presumably aware that it might contain something to implicate him. Dormer and Hap have an argument about following procedure, as Dormer wants to avoid IA interfering in the case afterwards. The chief tells them to do what they have to and not to let IA "cut his balls off."

They replace the bag. Dormer, Hap, Ellie and another officer stake out the cabin and see a man entering. An accidental squawk from the megaphone alerts him that they're there and he runs. They chase after him but the surrounding area is incredibly foggy. One of the officers is shot and injured chasing the killer through the fog. Dormer fires into the fog and shoots Hap. Realizing this, he tries to explain that he couldn't see him, but Hap dies very quickly. Dormer also picks up the killers gun which he find on the ground near Hap. He lets the police believe that the killer shot Hap, and calls Hap's wife who asks him not to arrest the guy, but to kill him.

Ellie is put in charge of investigating Hap's shooting. She asks Dormer to confirm some details about what occurred. Dormer visits the hospital to talk with the Alaskan officer who was shot. He's recovering well, but Dormer really wants to know if he saw what happened. The officer tells him he didn't see anything as he was on the ground in pain. They return to the scene of the chase and find the shell casing from a .38 mm, they also get a call that they found the bullet in Hap, and plan to try to match them up. While watching everyone comb the area, Dormer hallucinates and sees Hap in the search party.

Dormer gets a call at the diner from IA, letting him know that they're very interested in the report on the shooting. He tells them off in front of the waitress. He's tired but unable to sleep, due to the light and his thoughts. This gets complicated when he gets a call in his room from the killer who tells him he saw Dormer shoot his partner.

Dormer finds an alley with a dead animal in it and fires a bullet into it from the killer's discarded gun and pulls it out afterwards, switching it with the autopsy bullet. Dormer is still completely unable to sleep. Ellie keeps asking him about his recollection of the incident as some of the details don't match up. At Kay's funeral, Dormer convinces Kay's best friend to take a ride with him. She's impressed that he's a worldly, older  LA cop. He shuts down her ideas quickly playing chicken with a tractor trailer.  The killer calls him at the police station needling him about his partner's murder while trying to suggest they have a lot in common. Dormer realizes that Kay's favorite author Walter Finch lives very close to the murder scene and investigates, breaking into his apartment (without revealing this to other officers) he grabs a picture of Finch (Robin Williams,) who returns home while Dormer is there, but doesn't enter realizing there's someone inside. Dormer chases him, but Finch escapes by running over logs in a river, piled for a logging company. In his tired condition, he falls between them and nearly drowns.

Dormer runs back to Finch's apartment knowing he won't return. Finch knows he'll do this and addresses Dormer on his answering machine message. With a second call he gets Dormer to pick up.He tells him where the aspirin is and tells him to feel free to take a shower and a nap. They arrange to meet the next day in public. Dormer hides the .38 in the apartment while he's there.

At the station, Ellie has become suspicious of Finch (Robin Williams) on her own, connecting Kay's autographed books and the fact that he lives in the area. Dormer congratulates her, trying to act surprised. Meanwhile Dormer meets Finch on a ferry. Finch tries to make Dormer sympathetic, acting as if they're alike. Dormer isn't interested, telling Finch he's just his job. Finch suggests that they both help each other. Dormer explains that he will be called in for questioning due to the signed copies of Finch's books that Kay had. Finch lets him know that he plans to point them towards Randy. Dormer advises Finch to let the police find Randy themselves, so they'll believe it more. Walking away, Finch shows Dormer a tape recorder he had in his jacket while they talked.

Unable to sleep, Dormer tries to cover his windows, and starts revisiting his memories of the shooting, visualizing a scene where he does see Hap clearly, takes aim and shoots him. Finch interrupts his reverie with a phone call and tells him what happened to Kay. He explains that she came to him looking for comfort after Randy beat her up. He kissed her and she laughed at him, which hurt his feelings enough that he hit her which escalated into a panicked murder.

Ellie picks him up in the morning, and asks him about looking forward to returning to LA. (She had seen in a newspaper that the investigation against Dormer was intensifying) She remarks that he hasn't been sleeping and she wants to know he's okay, quoting one of his own quotes at him
"A good cop can't sleep because a piece of the puzzle's missing. A bad cop can't sleep because his conscience won't let him" Ellie is clearly concerned.

Dormer sits in on Finch's questioning. Finch surprises him by telling the officer's that Randy had a gun, which he hid in a heating vent (Dormer hid Finch's .38 in a vent at Finch's apartment)  They call the judge for a search warrant for Randy's place. Dormer excuses himself early and rushes over to Randy's house searching for the gun but he doesn't find it. They release Finch and before he leaves, Ellie tells him she'll come pick up the letters Kay wrote to him. The police rush into the building forcing Dormer to hide while they search. They recover the gun and arrest Randy. Randy claims he was with Kay's best friend when the murder happened. Dormer says Kay's friend told him the same thing. Dormer meets with Finch again, threatening him this time. He tells Finch he's going to tell them everything. Finch tries to talk him out of it. Dormer is now visibly exhausted and having a hard time focusing on anything.

Ellie, after discovering a 9 mm. shell casing on the beach near Hap's shooting, searches police reports and finds that Dormer carries a 9 mm. back up weapon. She finds Dormer and the other officers at the bar and reveals her discovery, stating that none of them have a 9 mm. duty weapon or back up. "Right?" She asks, which Dormer doesn't respond to. She also asks Dormer to confirm that it's a valid piece of evidence, he tells her the case is closed and not to worry about it. The other officers dismiss her find. 

Dormer is due to leave for LA the next morning, so everyone says their goodbyes at the bar. Ellie reveals that she's going to pick up Finch's letters. Dormer returns to his room to attempt to sleep. The innkeeper/diner waitress comes to his room to check on a noise complaint (Dormer trying to block up the windows) He describes a horrific case of a child murderer, who was going to go free. He admits that he took blood samples from the child's body and planted them at the killer's apartment.
"I could feel it right then. This is gonna catch up with me. i don't do things like that." He explains that Hap cutting a deal would mean the case would be reopened and the killer could go free. He asks her her opinion and she says "I guess it's about what you thought was right at the time, then what you're willing to live with."

Ellie takes off to collect the letters. Dormer breaks into Finch's apartment and finds the address for his lake house. He calls the station and they tell her Ellie is headed to get the letters. He fears she's in danger and heads for the house. Finch meanwhile acts as if he's searching for letters. Ellie notices Kay's clothes in a plastic bag in one of his bureau drawers. She's obviously suspicious, but Finch surprises her and knocks her out. Dormer has a very difficult time driving as he can barely focus.He arrives and confronts Finch who has Ellie hidden in a locked room. He tells Dormer that she knows about Hap, and they have to do something to keep her quiet. Dormer demands to know where Ellie is and when it's clear he won't cooperate, Finch overpowers Dormer. Ellie gets out of the room while they fight. She pulls a gun and Finch runs. Ellie keeps the gun on Dormer, asking if he meant to shoot Hap. Dormer states that he isn't sure anymore, recalling how afraid Hap was when he approached him afterwards.

Finch starts firing at them with a shotgun from another building. Ellie and Dormer work together to get Finch, Ellie shooting through the window while Dormer breaks through the floor and sneaks up on Finch. He shoots Finch but gets shot back with the gun he had stowed. Finch falls into the water beneath the build, dead. Dormer stumbles out and finds Ellie coming for him. He collapses unable to even move. Ellie tells him that nobody needs to know about Hap as she knows he didn't mean to do it, even if he doesn't. Dormer prevents her from throwing the shell casing in the water and says "No. Don't lose your way.Let me sleep." He dies. and Ellie puts the casing back in the evidence bag.

Insomnia is less about a murder investigation, than a story of a man who crosses his own moral line and doesn't know how to repair it. The fact that he has strong beliefs and convictions only make this more difficult. The fact that the shooting happens while he's lost in this grey area causes him to slip further, guided in part by his own good intentions. The trouble is, even as he makes these small decisions, he knows better and can't excuse himself, which finally makes him question things he would normally never doubt. Given the right circumstances it's easy to lose your way.

Watching Pacino in this part, it's amazing how well he plays the increasing exhaustion, at times appearing as if he's forgotten how to move and even walking appears a major effort. Pacino is also great at showing his troubles in his face. You don't doubt that this is a man wrestling with thoughts that could kill him, while at the same time being a super competent detective. He carries the contradiction perfectly.

Robin Williams is also terrific as a soft spoken killer, who asks for sympathy in the same sentence where he describes beating a girl to death. His malice is concealed well and you almost believe that he's more concerned for Dormer's welfare, than the prospect of his own punishment. Hillary Swank does a fine job as the eager admirer, forced to question her would be mentor. Although her part isn't as significant as Pacino and Williams, she works perfectly for the story.

Christopher Nolan creates a tight and compelling picture of a smart man caught in a nightmare he created himself. He did wrong for the right reasons but can't convince himself that the end justifies the means. Framed against an accidental shooting and daylight that never goes away, you wonder if he can ever extricate himself. How far over the line can you go before you can't get back? For Dormer, who lives by his principles, the way back was lost as soon as he crossed the line. Perhaps if left to his usual routine, he could've avoided the realization longer. The drastic departure into a world where everything is exposed to the light of day, and a seemingly mild mannered child killer eager to point out how similar they are leaves him no choice but to confront the line he's crossed and accept that he has lost his way.

I should also point out that "Insomnia" is a remake of a Swedish film of the same name, which is well worth taking a look at. There are some major differences between the two films.


Lana A said...

If I hadn't seen the original I would no doubt like this movie more. It is well acted and I admire the casting. But the intensity of tension is better achieved in the original.

INDBrent said...

THe original swedish film is more intense and has some twists that this one doesn't. It's the better movie perhaps. Still it doesn't have Al Pacino and Robin Williams, who are really what make this version work!

Lana A said...

Yes, Al Pacino and Robin Williams (who couldhave guessed these two in a dramatic film?) are well worth it.

INDBrent said...

Yes, it is quite a pairing. I saw an interview with Pacino and Nolan about it, and Pacino pointed the odd pairing out as what he enjoyed most about it, that these two characters should never be together, but they are, so what happens as a result?

BRENT said...

This was a surprise film for me. Didn't know it was remake until I read your review!
I've never been a Robin Williams fan but in Insomnia he was a real revelation. I never could have imagined him as a 'baddie' and he is damn good at it here.
And overall I found this film superb. The tension is just palpable. Unfortunately here in NZ this film went somewhat unnoticed which is a shame as it actually very good.
I think Williams is worth seeing this film for alone because he does put in a stellar performance considering the rubbish he generally makes.

INDBrent said...

Yes Williams was terrific here! This was right around the time of "One Hour Photo" as well (which I also thought was brilliant) The original was also very good, but this one is well worth the time just for Pacino and Williams. They really make a great pairing.