Eyes Wide Open

No rest for the wicked in Christopher Nolans Insomnia

The movie also boasts an unexpectedly subtle performance from Williams, whose increasingly crumpled face makes Robert Altman's long-ago casting of him as Popeye look positively visionary. Williams is an astonishing performer, but in the past, his attempts to play ordinary people came across as simulacrums of ordinariness in which he resembled an uncannily precise but heartless puppet. As Finch, he has finally figured out how to play normal—he actually appears saner than Dormer—and the great joke is that he's playing a murderer. But while it's a good piece of dramatic acting, I still find myself curious about the casting. Why hire Robin Williams to play a down-to-earth-seeming guy when hundreds of other actors can do that without breaking a sweat? And if you do cast him as a psycho-killer, why not unleash him and get the benefit of his improvisational genius? (Nothing he does in Insomnia is nearly as enjoyable as the moment on Conan last week when he tweaked the self-serious Pacino while impersonating Sean Penn in I Am Sam.)

If Dormer and Finch incarnate differing degrees of guilt, the burden of innocence is carried by eager policewoman Ellie Burr, charmingly played by Swank, who displays a genial looseness that has eluded her ever since winning her Oscar. Although not a huge role, Officer Burr becomes the film's moral center, for she alone undergoes a real transformation from naiveté to experience. She starts out worshiping Dormer for his righteous prowess but winds up discovering how easy it is to be compromised while acting in the name of good.

In the end, Insomnia tells the story of a detective who begins by investigating a horrible crime and winds up confronting his own guilty soul. Although the American remake spells everything out as the taut Norwegian version does not, it still hews closely enough to the original that watching them back-to-back is strangely revealing. Indeed, if you rent the video after viewing Nolan's movie, you'll have the unexpected pleasure of seeing what it would be like if Europe got into the habit of taking big Hollywood star vehicles and remaking them with far smaller budgets and a far larger sense of what one dares put onscreen. For example: in the original movie, Skarsgård's cop desperately needs a spent bullet to cover up his crime, so he shoots a barking dog on the street and pulls the slug from its body. In the American version, Dormer needs the same bullet, but as he wanders down an alley, he stumbles across a dead dog that somehow happens to have been conveniently placed in his path—just so he has a carcass to fire into. "I don't mind killing a cop," you can almost hear Pacino rasping to the producers, "but I'll be damned if you're going to show me shooting a dog."

Insomnia was directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Hillary Seitz, from a screenplay by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg; and stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hillary Swank. Now playing countywide.

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