Insomnia (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Insomnia is basically a movie about a detective who despises Robin Williams. Who could blame the guy? He probably saw Patch Adams.

It begins with a small plane heading into a remote Alaskan outpost, a spectacular vista in which we can literally see the exact spot where the permafrost ends and the green summer forest begins. Two hot-shot L.A. detectives have been lent to the local police to solve a case more typical of Los Angeles than Outer Halibutfuck, Alaska - a woman is brutally beaten to death, after which her body is cleaned, her hair washed, even her fingernails cleaned and trimmed. Possibly the work of a sadistic maniac. Possibly not his last?

But how can the LAPD spare two top detectives for an unspecified period to work in a rinky-dink fishing community? It turns out that their superior has really sent them there to get them out of the glare of an internal affairs investigation. We don't know exactly what they have done wrong at first, but we know it must be bad, because the younger partner is going to "cut a deal", and the older partner knows the result will be that he will go down, and that the investigation will set many bad guys back out on the street. The partners have a major disagreement over this point. We can assume from their conversation that the corruption involves framing some criminals with manufactured evidence, since the usual kickbacks and such mundane things would be irrelevant to past convictions, but a record of falsified evidence would cast doubt on everything they had ever done.

They have to set aside their argument, however, to work on the case in Alaska. Al Pacino, as the senior detective, is an Inspector Columbo in his own right. He's immediately making progress on the case when he gets an unforseen break. The criminal (Mork from Orc) made an error. The victim's backpack has been found. There really isn't much in the way of evidence, at least not at first glance, but Pacino determines that the backpack would have more value if it had not been found. So he unfinds it. He releases a bogus news story to the press, which implies that the victim's mother told them the victim was wearing a backpack, and the police know they could solve the case if they only had that backpack, wherever it is. The killer doesn't want that to happen, of course, so he returns to the place where the backpack was found, not knowing that is exactly what the police want him to do. 

Genius work from the detective, right? It's a perfect trap, and the entire police force is waiting when the killer shows up. Unfortunately, they bungle the actual apprehension in several ways, and the killer manages to escape from the remote cabin through a tunnel underneath it, which the police should have been aware of. In the subsequent pursuit, the police find themselves stalking Mork in a dense fog, and more things go wrong. The worst thing that happens is that Pacino shoots his own partner, and when he goes to comfort him, the partner thinks Pacino did it on purpose to keep him from cutting a deal on the IA investigation. The partner dies in his arms.

On the spur of the moment, Pacino decides to cover up the fact that he shot his partner, and make it seem like the killer did it. He will have to tamper with evidence to accomplish this, but this doesn't surprise us. We think he has done so many times in the past. He is a man who believes that the end justifies the means. Only one problem - there is one person who knows that the killer didn't shoot Al's partner - the killer himself. So the killer ends up getting in touch with Pacino, first by anonymous phone calls, and essentially proposing a partnership. This is a very intelligent killer, ala the Spacey character in SE7EN, and he has done his homework on Pacino's legal problems, so he knows that Pacino himself is in a heap o' trouble.

Well, I guess the killer isn't that intelligent, because he's an author and he gave the victim a personally autographed copy of one of his books, saying something like

Dear underaged girl:

Here's hoping I can persuade you to become a victim as well as a fan.

Your psychotic murdering friend,


Na-nu, na-nu

Pacino is in the ultimate cop dilemma. Solving the crime is no problem, but if he does solve the crime, he himself is screwed.

In essence, the real killer proposes that they agree that they both made regrettable mistakes, that they create a patsy to take a fall for the crime, and that Al should high-tail it back to L.A. Al goes along, up to a point.

The other remaining character in the film is the midnight sun. Pacino is in northern Alaska for a week, and he never sleeps. He can't get used to the fact that there is no darkness. He can't think clearly because of his sleep deprivation, and this magnifies the desperation he feels when he is almost caught in his web of deceit by the local cops, then really is trapped by the killer himself.

In a somewhat heavy-handed bit of multi-lingual preciousness, the sleepy detective's name is Will Dormer.

In German "I want to" = "Ich will"

In French "to sleep" = "dormir"

His name means "I want to sleep".

That's about all I can tell you without spoiling some of the more clever plot developments. Don't go to this movie expecting a clever suspense yarn with a labyrinthine plot and several twists. Won't happen. The mystery is no mystery at all. We know that Mork is the killer about a third of the way into the film. The tension in the film results from Pacino's attempts to cover his own tracks, while he and Mork try to outsmart each other, each attempting to resolve the situation in a way best suited to himself.

Although it is not primarily a whodunit or an actioner, there are some excellent twists as the two of them struggle for the upper hand, and there are several nail-biting scenes involving Pacino and his manipulation of the evidence relating to the murder weapon. There is a great series of face-to-face confrontations between the cop and the killer. There is one of the best, most creative chase scenes I've ever seen, which really engrossed me even though I hate chase scenes. The Alaskan photography is spectacular. The creation of atmosphere is brilliant.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by director Christopher Nolan (in order of shooting sequence)  

  • Commentary by actor Hilary Swank, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Dody Dorn, cinematograher Wally Pfister, and screenwriter Hillary Seitz  

  • Theatrical trailer(s)  

  • Additional scene with commentary  

  • "Day for Night" making of documentary  

  • "180 Degrees": A Conversation with Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino  

  • "In the Fog": Cinematography and production design  

  • "Eyes Wide Open": The insomniac's world  

  • Stills Gallery  

  • Widescreen anamorphic format. 1.85:1


We see some black and white photos of the murder victim and one shows bare breasts. 

We also see a side shot of the young female murder victim's body (Crystal Lowe) lying on an examination table stark naked, and see her bare breasts as well as some pubic hair.  

My favorite scene was a beautifully scripted police interrogation scene in which Pacino cross-examines Mork in front of two Alaskan cops. The two local cops do not know it, but Pacino and Mork have already discussed the interrogation in advance, so they (and we) have all kinds of knowledge which is still hidden from the locals. Nonetheless, both Pacino and Mork have all kind of hole cards that they hadn't revealed to each other, and they have to conduct their cat-and-mouse game in terms and phrases couched so that they understand each other, but the local cops don't see what it is really about. Great writing!


By the way, the film has been partially Hollywoodized from the dark, edgy original. In the original, the cop and the killer were nearly identical shades of grey. In the remake, the cop is whiter, the killer blacker.

  • In the Norwegian original, the policeman creates a false piece of evidence by firing the killer's gun into a dog, then removing the bullet and swapping it with bullet that killed his partner. In the original movie, the dog was alive at the time. In the remake, Pacino remembers the location of a dead dog's carcass in an alley so he doesn't have to kill the animal. I guess you might call this a cop-out if you were inclined to puns.
  • In the original, the corrupt cop planted the evidence on the patsy. In the remake, he planted the evidence on the real killer, as per his historical tendency to take short-cuts to convict people who really were guilty. The real killer outsmarted him, however, figured out his plan, and re-planted the evidence on the patsy. This was done very well in the remake, so I don't really have any complaint about the change, but my point involves the bleaching of the cop's character. In the original, he framed a guy he knew to be completely innocent. In the remake, he simply framed a guy who really was a psychotic killer, thus placing him on considerably higher moral ground.
  • In the original, the cop makes sexual advances on the victim's underage friend. In the remake, it is the friend who makes the advances, and Pacino stays pure.
  • In the original, the cop makes a clumsy and excessively violent sexual pass at the desk clerk of the hotel. (You see, he is similar to the killer. This is the same thing that happened to the killer with the victim, except it went further.) In the remake, the cop and the desk clerk have a tender talk together, and she is shown sleeping on his bed, on top of the covers, fully clothed. (That was a superfluous and confusing scene, by the way, only a couple of seconds long, that could easily have been cut altogether. Why was she there? What did they do together? I have no idea.)

Most of these changes, but not all, were mandated by the fact that the cop's tragic flaw has been changed from inappropriate and predatory sexual advances to the manipulation of evidence. In my opinion, this was a logical change in the script, even if it did result in a sharpening of the ethical differences between the cop and the killer, and a less nuanced moral stance. What it lost in "edginess", it more than made up in a clarification of the detective's motivations for his acts. The two men who wrote the original screenplay also contributed to the new screenplay, and they've had plenty of time to think about what they wanted to change.

  • In the original, since the detective had no history of manipulating evidence, when he started doing so after shooting his partner, he was acting completely out of character. His past sins had been sexual exploitation of witnesses, but there was no suggestion of corrupt or dishonest police work. In the new film, the character's flaw has been changed from uncontrolled lust to a history of manipulating evidence. Therefore, it is completely in character when he continues to manipulate evidence in the course of this investigation. It is much easier to believe that a man with a history of manipulating evidence continues to do so than it is to believe that a man with an uncontrolled libido just started taking up evidence manipulation on the spur of the moment.
  • The new script had one other improvement in the credibility of the detective's motivation. In the new script, Pacino had a very good reason to cover up the fact that he shot his partner. Because of the investigation back in L.A., and the fact that his partner was just about to turn on him, the IA guys would believe that Pacino killed his partner on purpose, and he knew that very well. In fact, even he wasn't convinced that it was completely an accident. In the original script, there was really no reason to cover up the accidental shooting. It was an accident, pure and simple, and nobody would have had any reason to believe otherwise. There was no suggestion that he had any reason to kill his partner. As you watch that original version, you can't figure out why he created an elaborate cover-up instead of simply telling the innocent truth. In the newer version, Pacino actually had a desperate reason to cover it up.
  • Equally important, the change in the detective's flaw allows him ultimately to destroy himself based on a flaw in his own character, ala classical tragedy.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a quarter stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4,

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: a solid hit, with a $67 million gross, despite opening against Spiderman and Star Wars II. The budget was $46 million. It will turn a profit for the investors after all sources of revenue.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B. Excellent movie. A psychological drama, a morality play, a Shakespearian tragedy about a great man felled by his own tragic character flaws. Also an interesting, atmospheric crime story with a complex bad guy and some real nail-biting moments.

Return to the Movie House home page