Sunday, 8 January 2012

Insomnia (2002)

Dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney

An adaptation of a 1997 Norwegian film, Insomnia could have been set nowhere else in the United States than Alaska. Alaska provides more than just the scenery in the background – it affects the characters within it, forcing them to act in certain ways. No one feels this more strongly than Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino). Sent up from Los Angeles to help investigate the death of 17-year old Kay Connell he is unprepared for the merciless Alaskan conditions. When he suggests rousting Kay’s boyfriend out of class it has to be pointed out to him that it is ten o’clock. In the evening.

The city of Nightmute is located at such a northerly latitude that it experiences ‘White Nights’ – days in which the sun does not actually set. This is the land of the midnight sun. Even at night the skies are still bright, the light creeping around the edges of the blinds in Dormer’s room, preventing him from sleeping. Lack of sleep plays with his perceptions and nerves. On the flight in he already looked tired. After six days he looks haggard as hell, dead on his feet. He gets jumpy. Pursuing an armed suspect in a ghostly Alaskan coastal mist he opens fire. But the man who falls is not the murderer, but Dormer’s partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).

The lack of sleep and the enshrouding fog would have provided mitigating circumstances for Eckhard’s death, except for one thing: he cannot guarantee that it was an accident. Eckhard, with his dying breaths, certainly thinks Dormer’s actions were deliberate. Both were under investigation by Internal Affairs back in L.A. and Eckhard was going to go on record, probably incriminating Dormer in the process. This could lead to Dormer’s reputation being tarnished and the overturning of all his cases, letting criminals back out onto the streets. Eckhard’s death could easily look non-accidental to someone aware of this. So Dormer panics, hides the evidence, claims that the suspect shot Eckhard.

Losing his way:
Detective Will Dormer takes a shot in the dark
One of the introductory shots in the movie is that of a drop of blood hitting a shirt cuff. As soon as it makes contact it spreads, twining its way among the fibres. As with blood, so also does a lie spread and stain. Dormer’s framing of a suspect back in L.A. leads to the Internal Affairs investigation. The investigation means that he is sent off to Alaska. Because he is in Alaska he accidentally kills his partner. Because of the investigation he has to cover up his own part in the death. But Kay’s murderer sees him. Now the murderer has something on Dormer. The murderer claims to be his ‘new partner’ – they have to work in collaboration. If he is arrested he will tell all he knows about Dormer. Instead they need to frame a ‘patsy’. Dormer is faced with the knowledge that an innocent boy could be found guilty of Kay’s murder. The lie spreads and spreads, trapping the increasingly erratic Dormer in its web. Is it the daylight that is stopping him from sleeping, or the worry over the investigation, and the guilt at his partner’s death? Hero-worshipping local cop Ellie (Hilary Swank) reminds him of his own words: “A good cop can’t sleep because he’s missing a piece of the puzzle. And a bad cop can’t sleep because his conscience won’t let him.”

Alaska is a grey land. There is no black and white, just shades of grey. Flying into the Nightmute the fractured ice is like a forest, the mist-shrouded woods like a sea. Day and night are indistinguishable. So too – at least in the eyes of novelist Walter Finch – are the good guys and the bad. Dormer killed someone accidentally. So too did he. He and Dormer are the same. Dormer carried out a bad action (planting evidence) to get a good result (convicting a paedophile). If he owns up to shooting Eckhard (a good action) there will probably be a bad result (the acquittal of the criminals he has previously convicted). To prevent that he has to do one final bad action – letting Finch get away with his crime. All is shrouded in thick Alaskan fog. By the end even Dormer cannot remember whether the shooting was an accident or not. His final act is to stop Ellie disposing of the evidence that would incriminate him, to stop her sliding down the same slope he himself has slipped. “Don’t lose your way.”

I feel I have to point out that the depiction of the midnight sun is exaggerated for effect. I once spent midsummer in the backwoods outside Tampere, Finland, a city at a more northerly latitude than Nightmute. There too the sun never set. But it did not present the blazing daylight that so unsettles Dormer at all hours. Instead, at around 11 in the evening a crepuscular dusk would fall as the sun hovered on the horizon. This twilight would last until 3 AM, and then the sun would commence its slide up into the sky again. But the film does leave us with the question of whether Dormer’s perceptions are accurate. Coming into his room at night hotel-owner Rachel (Maura Tierney) puts the light on – to her eyes the room is dark.

This is a great film, probably the one I’ve enjoyed most out of the five so far. It is reminiscent in some ways of the Hitchcock classic Vertigo. The story is a taut noir-ish tale where no one is innocent. Even Ellie’s presumed actions will destroy the reputation of a very good cop. The setting is integral to the plot. All the performances are superb, with Pacino thankfully dialling down the performance a notch and internalising his mental strain. Instead it is up to the production to suggest his altered mindset, with shifts in focus, strange angles, echoing sounds. And a big mention to Robin Williams as Walter Finch. He manages to portray the apparent normalcy and rationality of a deranged mind. Having also been a fan of his performance in One Hour Photo I have to say that I much prefer Williams creepy to zany.

What have I learned about Alaska?
Alaska is a merciless land. As in Into The Wild it has great beauty, but it does not tolerate weakness. For every roadside waterfall or tonguing glacier there is a fog-coated boulder-strewn shoreline or an icy river choked with logs. And of course there is the seasonal shift which ushers in the White Nights, when the sun shines 24 hours a day. The upsetting of normal rhythms is bound to play savagely with the mental state of any newcomer – Finch suffered from insomnia just as much as Dormer.

The people in Alaska are on the run from someone or something. This is a land which prizes individuality. Rachel puts it bluntly: “There are two kinds of people in Alaska: those who were born here and those who come here to escape something”. She has trouble in her past. So too do Finch and Dormer. They should fit right in.

Can we go there?
Nightmute? Sure. It sits on Alaska’s west coast on the Etolin Strait. It is a little place with around 200 inhabitants, over 90% of whom are Native American. You probably won’t recognise it from this movie however. The film itself was shot over ten degrees of latitude further south and forty degrees of longitude further east in Squamish, British Columbia, Canada. Squamish is much more densely populated and easier to access, being located half-way along the two-hour drive between metropolitan Vancouver and the winter sports resort of Whistler. Being located so much further south however Squamish doesn’t have those White Nights that keep Donner so on edge. In fact Squamish is at roughly the same latitude as the Channel Islands whereas Nightmute is at the same latitude as the Shetlands. The fictional Nightmute seems a lot larger than the real one however – presumably artistic licence just because the city has a suitable name (in Nightmute the nights are themselves muted, in that they do not go dark). Hey, don’t blame me for trying to conjecture symbolism in names. I’m not the one who called the lead character, plagued by insomnia, ‘Dormer’ – which to my ears sounds suspiciously like dormire – ‘to sleep’ in Latin.

Overall Rating: 5/5

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