Director Christopher Nolan made his splash last year with "Memento," the backwards-reeling pseudo-mystery about a man who tries to identify his wife's killer. Nolan is back this year with "Insomnia," a major studio remake of the 1997 Swedish detective film by Erik Skjoldbjaerg, which starred Stellan Skarsgaard as a Stockholm detective sent to sub-arctic Norway to help out with an investigation during the time of the midnight sun.
Here it's Al Pacino as Will Dormer, a star L.A. detective under investigation by Internal Affairs for some bad deeds. His old pal the police chief of Nightmute, Alaska (and who thought up that name?), has asked him and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) to come up and help solve a local murder: a young girl has been beaten to death but then carefully cleaned by the killer, who has removed the clues to his identity. Local detective Ellie Burk (Hillary Swank) is assigned to work with the two hotshots.
Granted that the premise is flimsy - the murder is about as ordinary and unmysterious as, well, a murder can be - Nolan wrings some good suspense out of it. Will is old and tired, and both his reputation and what is left of his career will go down the tubes if Internal Affairs can prove its case against him. What's more, Hap tells him he's going to cut a deal with I.A. that will seal Will's fate. The guilt he feels at what must be revealed weighs him down as he tries to do his job. At the same time, the almost-constant sun gives him no respite. He can't seem to close his eyes; the shades in his motel room won't give him the dark blankness he craves, and night after night he goes without sleep.
Set out against this is the search for the killer. At a stakeout confrontation near a cabin, with a heavy coastal fog blinding Will, he shoots his partner. Is it an accident? Did he know who he shot? And who is the murderer he's chasing? His identity is no secret to us; Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a local crime novelist, is the logical suspect, and it remains only to find the evidence he's hidden to prove it. But Walter knows Will's own secrets, and so a cat and mouse game becomes one which the cat may well lose to the mouse.
What is extraordinary about the film is the cinematography, by Wally Pfister, that captures fog and makes it believable - notoriously difficult technically, as anyone in the business will tell you - and at the same time gives us the stunning beauty of the Northwest coast (British Columbia stands in for Alaska), with glaciers coming down to the fjords, and everything seen through the almost-constant rain.
The performances are all good. Pacino, with his tobacco-stained voice and ever-deepening lines in his face, carries the film. Williams, playing the overeducated smartass, shows depth and vulnerability as well. Only Swank's role seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. When we're introduced to her it seems as though she will play a major role in the film, but for the most part she is left with just bits and pieces of a character that never quite jells.
Is it ungenerous of me to point out that no place in southeastern Alaska gets as much as 22 hours of sunlight even at the moment of the summer solstice? It's nowhere near the Arctic Circle. In any case, "Insomnia" has no important message, other than that nighttime eye covers can be a help in northern latitudes. But it is a good entertainment, and that's not a bad thing.