Beauty is in short supply at the movies just now — I mean real beauty, not pretty pictures painted by computers. Insomnia, the new remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s brooding 1997 psychodrama, gives us opening images so stunning they’re almost painful: a small plane angling over the rocky, godforsaken outskirts of Alaska. The terrain looks savage and unforgiving, as if nature itself had decided to keep its secrets by keeping outsiders away. But the plane continues on, carrying two detectives from Los Angeles — Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan). They’ve come to investigate a murder, but we know it won’t be that simple, not in this bleak place where the sun never sets but never really seems to shine, either.
The original Insomnia was an artsy mood piece, and highly enjoyable as such, anchored by the sturdy presence of Stellan Skarsgård as the sleepless detective hiding dark secrets and impulses. The new version, directed by Christopher Nolan from a more fleshed-out script by Hillary Seitz, wears its insecurities on its sleeve. Nolan’s previous films, 1998′s trim, stark cheapie Following and last year’s famous Memento, took the unknowability of truth not only as their theme but as their style. Here, Nolan doesn’t mess with nonlinear narrative, but near the end, when Will is asked a crucial question and says “I don’t know anymore,” we believe him. If Nolan’s work is about anything, it’s how nobody can be trusted, least of all oneself.
Will stares down wearily at the corpse on the slab — a high-school girl beaten to death. With him is eager local rookie cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), too awed by Will’s legend (she did a paper on one of his cases) and by the very fact of murder in the dull town of Nightmute to be very upset at the loss of life. Nobody in town seems terribly surprised that the girl was killed; maybe it was her reputation, or maybe the land itself gives the impression that it wants blood sacrifice. With sunlight piercing his motel room at all hours, Will can’t get any sleep. “No rest for the wicked” was the tagline of the firstInsomnia, equally appropriate here. Will may be a great man, but he’s too casually intimate with death and evil to be a good man. The job has begun to decay him from the inside out.
Al Pacino has simultaneously never looked worse or better. His voice seems just about shot, until he gets it up into a roar (infrequent here, and the more effective for it) and reminds us who’s in charge. Generally, this isn’t one of his airhorn performances; he makes us lean forward and listen. He stays still, yet manages to suggest restlessness and constant mental fidgeting. With young actresses like Hilary Swank and Maura Tierney (as the motel clerk) he is fatherly and protective; he gets a weird vibe going with Katharine Isabelle, of last year’s superb Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps, as the dead girl’s best friend (blink and you’ll miss Isabelle’s costar in that film, Emily Perkins, delivering the eulogy). With men, like the untroubled Martin Donovan and the highly troubled Robin Williams, Pacino is subtly combative, as if Will were holding on to macho codes that life beat out of him decades ago.
Williams, as the story’s “wild card” (his character’s phrase), doesn’t stretch as much as you’ve been led to believe. Only those unfamiliar with his brief, terrific dramatic work in Dead Again and on TV’s Homicide could be all that surprised by his unsympathetic turn here. What’s new about his work in Insomnia is the sense of suppressed hysteria: He doesn’t seem just about to go off on a manic riff — he seems about to do something violent. Nolan gets a lot of mileage out of the potential for violence, yet I only count five gunshots that draw blood, one of which is fired into a dog carcass. This director has an unerring knack for arresting imagery and disorienting narrative that often plays you for a sap; given the latter, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, but given both, I wouldn’t miss his movies.