Veteran LAPD detective Will Dormer (Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Donovan) travel to a remote town in Alaska to help the local cops investigate the murder of a teenage girl. But when a fog-bound bust goes fatally wrong, Dormer's guilt, coupled with the region's perpetual sunlight, gives him sleepless nights.
How do you follow a one-of-a-kind cult classic like Memento? In Christopher Nolan's case, you move onwards and upwards.
On the surface, Insomnia looks like a standard Hollywood cop thriller - an American remake of a European original with A-list stars and a bigger budget. But, in Nolan's hands, it becomes a psychologically dense, inverted film noir (a film blanc, perhaps) that keeps the audience enthralled to the last.
Like Memento, Insomnia is all the more effective for streaming its plot through the unreliable mind of its main character. As Pacino's face visibly sags through lack of sleep, Will Dormer's ability to carry out his job objectively becomes less and less likely. This isn't a whodunnit - the killer is revealed early on. And unlike Murder By Numbers, for example, it's not simply a case of watching the cop get the bad guy.
Because Dormer compromises himself by covering up a fatal error, his relationship with the killer and his gung-ho attitude to the Internal Affairs investigation hanging over his head become questionable. 'That's my job - I assign guilt,' he says bullishly at one point. This end-justifies-the-means mentality threatens to cloud not only his judgement, but also our trust in him as the film's hero.
Just like the cracks of sunlight breaking through the blinds in Dormer's hotel room, the flaws in his personality steadily creep out from beneath the surface. And so while we're enjoying the cop movie thrills on a basic level, Nolan, Pacino and scriptwriter Hillary Seitz offer us something much meatier in terms of an anti-hero character study.
That's not to say that Insomnia can't be enjoyed as a cracking story cranked up by a couple of tense scenes. Williams is cleverly used as Dormer's nemesis, a crime novelist who believes he can control the murder investigation as if it were one of his fictions. Their relationship hangs on a delicate balance, depending on which one has more incriminating evidence on the other. It's not quite a Lecter-Starling match, but it's head and shoulders above what we're normally offered in a crime thriller.
The film opens with the two city cops flying over a topographical wasteland, before landing in a town untainted by street smarts and internal politics. Before it ends, Dormer's years of experience will be held under a harsh light and an Alaskan sun that refuses to set. Nolan, however, has nothing to fear from wider exposure. He has stepped up onto a bigger stage, where audiences are less forgiving than in the independent arena. But Insomnia is one of the best American films of the year, and a rare Hollywood movie that does justice to an excellent European original.
Whether he's telling a story backwards or forwards, on a miniscule budget or with major stars, Nolan makes magnificent use of the material at hand. Pacino is on world-beating form and Williams delivers his best straight performance yet.