Invited to Nightmute, Alaska, to head a murder case, veteran LAPD detective Will Dormer finds his investigation interrupted by an ever-shining midnight sun that wreaks sleep-depriving havoc on him- and by personal guilt over a second crime that may be real... or a figment of his increasingly unstable consciousness.
Director Christopher Nolan is obsessed with obsessed characters. From Guy Pearce's revenge-seeking amnesiac in 'Memento' to Hugh Jackman's secretive magician in 'The Prestige' to this summer's 'Inception,' where a crackerjack dream warrior creates an entire world to explore his failed relationship with his wife. (Then there's his pair of Batman movies… if anybody needs therapy, God knows it's Bruce Wayne.)
In 'Insomnia,' based on a 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name by Erik Skjoldbjærg, Nolan's obsessive is played by Al Pacino. As Los Angeles detective Will Dormer, he's brought to the tiny Alaskan town of Nightmute, where a young girl has been brutally murdered. He's accompanied by his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), as a favor to the chief of police (Paul Dooley). But the detectives are also hiding out: there's an internal affairs investigation going on in Los Angeles that involves the pair, which, in typical Nolan form, is parceled out over a fairly lengthy amount of screen time.
The town of Nightmute, it's explained by Hilary Swank, as Dormer and Eckhart's plucky police liaison, is so far north that they're currently experiencing a kind of "endless day," where all 24 hours are drenched in sunlight. (Like the inverse of '30 Days of Night.') While chasing the killer down a foggy embankment, Pacino shoots the wrong man and doesn't confess to the crime.
Pacino's character is guilt-ridden, a typical Nolan protagonist trait, but he's also tortured by the endless day, unable to sleep, and becoming increasingly sensitive and unnerved. Making matters worse are the fact that the killer (Robin Williams) calls Pacino and taunts him with the facts, having witnessed the tragic accident.
There's a noose around Pacino's character's neck, and as the movie goes along it gets tighter and tighter and tighter, until things get unbearably claustrophobic. This is undoubtedly Nolan's darkest, most pessimistic film (yes, even more so than 'Memento') and at times it gets uncomfortably bleak. But, like all of the director's films, it's so filtered through a character (Pacino, in a superb performance) that we feel exactly what this character is going through, for better or worse. Through Nolan's usual expert mixture of editorial work, photography, and sound cues, you really do feel like an insomniac by the time the movie is done, but never once does the movie drag or get dull. It remains vital throughout.
As far an obsessive characters go, Pacino's defective detective is a humdinger, morally ambiguous but so sure of his actions. When he starts to unravel, things get even darker, so much so that 'Insomnia' winds up being a little too grim to merit all that many repeat viewings. You may want to watch again just to see how Nolan pulled it off, but man, things are depressing.
Is it Nolan's best film? No. But it's a great "stepping stone" movie in between the smallish indie world and the big budget, thematically complicated studio work that has defined the later phase of his career. 'Insomnia' will certainly keep you awake (and obsessed), long after it's over.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB Blu-ray disc is Region Free. Um. Yeah, that's about it. Oh, I would like to compliment Warner Bros on going with a different, and altogether brilliant, box art image for this release of 'Insomnia.' The previous edition had some horrendous floating heads against a black backdrop. This is a wonderful, totally evocative image that is just perfect. Well done.
'Insomnia's' Blu-ray debut comes with a handsome VC-1 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 2.40:1) that beautifully captures the movie's chilly locations and even chillier characters.
But here's the thing: I couldn't stop staring at Al Pacino's hairpiece. I know this is a weird thing to confess, but the entire time I was watching it I just couldn't stop. I was becoming one of Christopher Nolan's obsessed protagonists. I watched, as his hairline dipped into his forehead and then recessed again. Every scene, no matter the dramatic weight, paled in comparison to what was going on with the top of Al Pacino's head. It was terrible!
Besides this minor hiccup, which grew into just about the only thing I could think about while watching the movie, the transfer is absolutely wonderful. Detail is superb, ditto textures, and skin tones look realistic and true (not that the cast is particularly multi-cultural). There is a nice, healthy layer of grain that lends a cinematic quality to the transfer, and there aren't any glitchy technical issues to speak of. Black levels are also deep and dark, when appropriate (a shadowy alleyway, for instance, or a violent flashback).
This is, overall, a really great transfer; one of the best I've seen lately. Just, please, try not to look anywhere near Al Pacino's forehead. It could end up consuming you, like it did to me.
Just as impressive as the video transfer is the outrageously great DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix.
There's a moment in the movie, maybe thirty minutes in, when Al Pacino's insomnia manifests itself at the police station. He looks around and everything: a clerk stapling a stack of pages, someone grabbing a drink of water, a fan oscillating, sounds incredibly loud. He's overwhelmed by the cacophony. It's a wonderful psychological manifestation of his insomnia and his interior madness/guilt. And here it sounds superb. Every sound effect is crisp and clear. Nothing overwhelms. It's just the perfect amount of atmosphere.
Another neat effect that sounds great here is the "searing" noise that the sunlight makes as it pours through Pacino's hotel window. Try as he might to shut it out, it comes back. It's hard not to think that Danny Boyle borrowed some of this for his spectacular 'Sunshine.'
Sound effects aside, the mix is wonderful ambient and atmospheric. There's a nice scope to the movie, visually, which is matched by both the sound effects (aforementioned) and the minimalist score by David Julyan. Dialogue sounds crisp and clear and the surround channels are often supported. Overall, a really great sound mix to go along with the impressive visuals, and when I was listening to 'Insomnia,' I wasn't focusing on Al Pacino's hairpiece.
Also included here are French Dolby Digital 5.1, German Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes as well as subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German SDH.
'Insomnia' follows Warner Bros' typical Blu-ray catalogue approach: reproducing all the special features from the already features-laden DVD. Warner Bros had a bunch of great DVD special features and it's nice to have them here, but it would also be nice to have some new supplements, especially retrospective stuff. A boy can dream, can't he?
If you're a fan of the twisty, turny, guilt-filled world of director Christopher Nolan but have let 'Insomnia' slip through your grasp, well, it's time to correct that RIGHT NOW. His first studio movie is a masterful exercise in atmosphere and neuroses, weighted by a trio of great performances from Pacino, Swank, and Williams. It might not be the most uplifting move you see this week, but you'll be glad you took the trip to the icy, sundrenched town of Nightmute, Alaska. With some great A/V and a hearty collection of extras, this is a highly recommended disc indeed. Just, please, don't look at Al Pacino's hairline.