Grant Mitchell

In 2002’s “Insomnia,” we were gifted an unlikely but exquisite screen pairing of Robin Williams and Al Pacino in what is a classic complex relationship of hero and heavy, good and bad. Only here, it isn’t clear who the good guy is.

At this point, Al Pacino and Robin Williams had already established their stardom and solidified their places as Hollywood A-listers.

Williams and Pacino had also both started to see this stardom and viability as perennial Oscar nominees begin to fade away as age and the film industry’s selectiveness in casting older actors in top shelf films took effect.

“Insomnia,” however, is a marvelous twist on the classic police vs. murderer chase movie and a concisely written and expertly directed picture by now famed director Christopher Nolan.

The film sees Pacino’s character Will Dormer and his partner in the LA police force relocated to Alaska in order to help out with a murder case in Nightmute, Alaska.

Dormer is a legendary detective known for busting open big cases, but he is in the twilight of his career and in a tough situation with the LAPD.

Dormer and his partner are being investigated by the department for planting evidence in some of their arrests, and not long after arriving in Alaska, Dormer finds out his partner is going to testify against him to save his own skin.

All this making the murder case in Alaska more of a banishment from the limelight than an altruistic loaning of an officer with a decorated policing career.

But that does not mean this case has an easy fix.

A manhunt ensues for the killer right away and immediately the mystery killer is almost caught in a trap set by Dormer and the Alaskan police, but in the chase that follows, Dormer accidentally shoots his partner as there is heavy fog.

Dormer then holds his partner in his arms as he dies, and in those last moments he tries to fight away Dormer as he thinks he intentionally shot him to shut him up.

Dormer then tells the other officers as they arrive to him holding his now deceased partner that it was the killer who shot his partner.

Here’s where things get interesting.

The Alaskan town is in a state of 24 hours of sunshine a day because of the time of year and the positioning of Alaska on the globe. Which puts Dormer in the precarious position of trying to fall asleep.

Throw in the fact he just killed his partner and is facing and internal investigation from the LAPD, and you have sleepless nights.

But, like an infomercial salesman, wait, there’s more!

Dormer gets a phone call the night after he shoots his partner in his hotel room, and it’s Robin William’s killer calling. And he only has to say one thing to get Pacino to stay on the phone, “I saw what you did.”

And there is where we see the film go from plain procedural cat and mouse chase to a quid pro quo relationship of necessity.

What I like so much about this is how seamlessly “Insomnia” does this transition. It feels like the major shift in the film’s plot changes with the same kind of smooth and powerful transition as a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss shifting gears in its powerful 429 horsepower engine.

We see a man pushed to the limits and made to question if what he did was accident or intentional in Dormer, and a killer in Williams masterfully take advantage of a morally bankrupt police officer and the killing of his partner he observed.

This all takes place in a location where the sun is out at all times of day, fog fills the air of the hills, and the lead detective of a murder case begins manipulating evidence like he always has. Only this time, it’s to help a killer get away instead of aiding in the arrest of the ingenious criminal.

This is a Christopher Nolan film that, like all of his others, makes the atmosphere and aesthetic of the location into a character all its own.

Nolan may not have reinvented the wheel for murder mystery films with “Insomnia,” but inspired performances, direction, dialogue and plot points make this film a standout and one of the best in the genre.

Grant Mitchell is a junior majoring in public relations. He can be reached at gmitch16@vols.utk.edu.

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