May 27, 2002 
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Al Pacino, Robin Williams' cat and mouse game
In the thrilling morality play: Insomnia.

Nuggehalli Nigam

Christopher Nolan's pedigree is impeccable.

His previous directorial venture, Memento set new standards for noir thrillers. Memento had its actors in three temporal dimensions, with one of them going backwards in chronological order.

If fans of Memento expect a similar film, they will be disappointed.

Insomnia has none of Memento's 'sleight of hand' filmmaking and surprising plot twists. It showcases its strengths in the all-too familiar spheres of morality and human emotions. This does not make it any less complex or multilayered. It only goes to show that Nolan has decided to apply his considerable storytelling skills to more mainstream Hollywood issues of crime and punishment.

Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), are cops assigned to a murder case in Alaska. A young girl has been bludgeoned to death. No one has a clue who killed her. Dormer is a hard-boiled cop of the Dirty Harry variety, and is under investigation in his own department for his vigilante justice tactics.

His partner wants to cut a deal with his superiors that will undermine Darmer's career and reputation. So the audience gets a flavor of the tension between the two men early in the film.

The homicide case gains steam with a shootout with the alleged killer Walter Finch (Robin Williams), in an isolated cabin. The shootout at the outset is quintessential Hollywood --- men with cocked pistols firing at each other in a foggy mist. But the fog provides the background for something more profound than cops and robbers. It is the metaphor for a sequence of events that shows how guilt and integrity can have shades of grey in the murky real world.

The Alaskan setting is a directorial ingenuity that gives a picturesque touch to this otherwise dark tale. In the summer, Alaska has 22 hours of sunlight a day. Darmer develops insomnia as a result of the disconcerting daylight. In one scene, Darmer wants to go out into the bright sunshine to interrogate a high school suspect. He is informed by sardonic fellow Alaskan policemen that it is ten at night!

Insomnia Al Pacino with his gravelly voice and piercing eyes is the stereotypical cop. Not spit and polish, his character has darker shades that form the pivotal part of the film. Comedian Robin Williams as the demented perverse murderer is cast in a role that is a first for him.

It is intriguing to see how Robin Williams carries his pouting lips and vulnerable visage over to a negative character, indicating that comedy, perversity and insanity demand a common set of skills.

Hilary Swank, after her star turn in Boys Don't Cry appears here as an eager beaver police detective helping out Al Pacino's character, and making it clear that she is in awe of him. Al Pacino plays along, commenting wryly, "Don't you want to write it down?" every time he gives her some advice. Swank's role is devoid of emotion. And it is to her credit that despite the role's one-dimensional requirement, she performs sincerely.

The title and the significance of the main character suffering from insomnia are bound to fuel speculation. At one level, it is a cheap Hollywood trick meant to lend a surrealist air to a bland crime thriller. At another, it is a motif for the moral dilemma swirling around in Dormer's mind like an unending migraine, never allowing him to sleep in peace.

The killer taunts Dormer repeatedly by stating that they are both alike in their motivation. The pain of this revelation is enough to force any conscientious cop to stay awake; thus insomnia is presented as a necessary corollary of the moral tempest with which Dormer has to reluctantly contend.

Insomnia Insomnia is ultimately a mortality play. After the first 30 minutes, the killer's identity is no longer the primary focus of interest. Instead, the film takes the audience on a philosophical inquiry into ethical conduct, focusing attention on the conduct of the both the cop and the killer. They play a cat and mouse game, and the film's allure lies in making the audience wonder who is the cat and who is the mouse.


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