The story the director tells is particularly engaging. Instead of merely relating a dull, rehashed mystery, Nolan uses such a narrative to involve the viewer with his characters, especially Dormer. He discloses how that man, though admired by his colleagues, is hardly heroic. In fact, he is shown as very likely being even more malignant than is the killer he is hunting. Over the course of the film, Dormer terrorizes a young female witness, falsifies evidence, burglarizes a suspect's home, and so on and so on. Fortunately, the director has not presented the character as a simple villain. Having made the viewer aware that the detective believes, at least initially, that actions such as these are acceptable, he goes on to expose Dormer's intensifying doubts about his own behavior. Moreover, while showing the protagonist acting in these ways and tormenting himself, Nolan reveals how the policeman's lack of sleep is making him ever more irrational. The moviegoer is, as a result of such a depiction of the character, likely to find himself caught up in the protagonist's existence and affected by his increasingly disoriented mental states.
These intriguing characterizations are, fortunately, complemented by the performances of the actors, which are, without exception, delightful. Swank successfully brings out the eagerness and honesty of her character, giving her a vibrancy in spite of her simplicity. Williams creates an entirely ordinary man whose mediocrity is closely bound to insecurities that make him able to commit horrible crimes, and Pacino allows the viewer to see how an arrogant, self-assured man is slowly whittled away by sleeplessness and guilt into an emotional wreck. There is not a person who appears in the film who does not add to its quality.
Sadly, Insomnia is hardly without flaws. Visually, it is consistently pedestrian, although Nolan does effectively and repeatedly remind the viewer of the omnipresent light that bathes the drab, wet world in which the characters move. There are a few elements of the narrative that do test the viewer's credulity. He may, for example, wonder why two policemen from Los Angeles are investigating a murder in Alaska. The director has included a couple of entirely pointless and intrusive action sequences, and the story's ending is somewhat cowardly. Instead of crafting an ambiguous conclusion equal to the ambiguities of the narrative, Nolan has foisted on the viewer a very neat and almost formulaic finale that does not at all accord with what came before it.
While it is far from perfect, Insomnia is one of the best thrillers I have seen for some time. It is genuinely exciting and affecting throughout most of its duration.
Review by Keith Allen
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