Everyone has sleepless nights. No matter how successful you
are or how fulfilled you feel, there are nights where you toss
and turn because your stomach is knotted with thoughts of failure.
It's human nature to think you're a failure. Well, in my case,
it's human nature and my mother.
We're never supposed to be satisfied, knowing we can do better,
and secretly hating ourselves for settling for what we have, or
did or had done to us. We know we're not trying our hardest, every
single one of us. Except for sitcom writers. Those pricks are
pretty damn pleased with themselves.
We pick over the events of our pasts and remember the thousands
of tiny bad decisions that keep being added to the previous fuckups.
Sometimes in the middle of the night I can't sleep because my
mind picks at the loose ends of horrible decisions and cowardly
indecision. In that late-night state of semi-consciousness, I
can't keep from pulling at those strands and examining them too
closely until I can see how buying shoes three sizes too small
and eating nacho cheese sauce straight from the can for lunch
are not exclusive mistakes. They are just more strings that add
to the girth of my ball of troubles.
No matter how much I don't want to think about it, I lie awake
and staring at a weird brown spot on the ceiling. Maybe I feel
too hot or maybe I need to take a shit and then I'll sleep. But
no, it's not physical discomfort that keeps me awake. I worry
that I am not where I want to be in life. It is usually at four
a.m. and I think I've screwed up; I don't want to be an unemployed
drunk who relies on his wife and friends for handouts and pity
to get by. I can't sleep because my mind tugs at the strings,
unraveling them until I get to more strings. I spend the rest
of the night, awake, sick and trying to get at the core of my
Of course, in the morning everything is better. I am awake,
thinking straight and clearly. All the mental gymnastics of the
night fade away and I can see that I am not a failure; I do want
to be an unemployed drunk. Who doesn't? What child doesn't dream
of a life of inebriated leisure when he's just a tyke, barely
old enough to climb up on the counter in the garage and drink
solvents. This conscious knowledge doesn't stop me from having
the same thoughts the next night, though.
Self-loathing is what keeps Al Pacino awake in Insomnia,
a damn fine thriller remade from some Norwegian flick. It's filled
with moments of genuine originality and enough clouded judgment
to remind anyone of a sleepless night. It isn't show-offy like
Murder by Numbers where the fucking screenwriter is the
only one convinced of his cleverness. The only disappointment
is the last fifteen minutes, when the story collapses into Hollywood
clichés like the scramble for a gun, the damsel in distress,
and a big bowtie that wraps everything up too neatly.
Pacino is a hero cop from L.A. sent to help on a murder case
in a small town in Northern Alaska where the summer sun never
really sets. He isn't sent as a favor but rather as a way to get
him out of the big city while Internal Affairs tries to uncover
some suspected wrongdoing. He has made one mistake that, if uncovered,
could ruin his reputation and destroy his credibility to the point
that every murderer he ever put behind bars could go free. Pacino
is teamed with Martin Donovan, a subordinate detective whose own
career is under investigation. He knows of Pacino's misdeeds and
is considering turning state's evidence. By spilling the beans
he can save his own ass.
In Alaska, the two are aided by Hillary Swank, an eager young
cop who idolizes Pacino, on a murder case about a teenager beaten
to death. Pacino's big-city smarts impress the locals and they
soon lay a trap for the killer. The pursuit leads them onto a
foggy lakeshore. In the mist, Pacino mistakes his partner for
the murderer and shoots him. If he admits to killing him, Internal
Affairs will suspect he did it on purpose to protect himself,
so he frames the murderer they were chasing for the death.
Problem is, the murderer saw him do it. Robin Williams is Walter
Finch, a local mystery writer and lonely freak. He killed the
girl and Pacino figures that out pretty quickly but has to keep
it to himself. Williams wants to frame the girl's abusive boyfriend
for his crime in exchange for shutting his yap about the shooting
in the fog. If Pacino lets this one bastard go free, it will keep
all the creeps he's caught before behind bars.
As the story unspools, Pacino grows more exhausted from lack
of sleep. He hallucinates and floats through the action, half-awake
and responding one second slower than everyone else. He thinks
it's the relentless sun, but it's his mind replaying little moments
that prick his conscience. Because he is a good cop, he won't
let Swank accept his version of what happened in the fog even
though it clears him. She keeps digging until she finds the truth.
Pacino duels with Williams, trying to work through his mental
haze to come up with a solution that catches Williams and keeps
his history intact.
Insomnia does the damn near impossible of catching that
floating, sick feeling of being awake for too long. The sky is
always a dusky gray but never dark. Pacino stumbles over his words
and thoughts, having a more difficult time making decisions as
the story goes. The setting is fucking gorgeous, almost surreal,
full of sharp green canyons and black water draped in an eternal
icy fog. The movie has two badass chases that not only are fun
to watch, but enhance the movies dreamy feel. The first is the
scramble through the lakeshore rocks in the fog, where shadowy
figures pop up and disappear before it can be determined who they
are. The second is when Pacino first sees Williams and chases
him across a logjam in the river, finally falling into the freezing
water and struggling to resurface between the massive logs.
The story's theme is really fucking terrific. It asks what
wrongs can you commit to preserve the larger truth? In an imperfect
world, do you have to compromise to preserve your results? Set
against the backdrop of a never-setting sun and sleepless nights,
the decisions become less clear, and the doing the right thing
is less based on an intellect too weary to make smart rational
decisions. You have to work on gut instinct and hardened rules
of right and wrong. While Pacino relents to lie about what happened
in the fog, he is too honest to encourage Swank to do the same
Director Christopher Nolan does one thing better than everything
else, though: he reins in the double-meat ham sandwich of Robin
Williams and Al Pacino. With another director, these two would
be fighting over who got to chew up the last fucking morsel of
scenery. Both are from the school of acting that thinks we're
more interested in watching them "act" than play a character.
In Insomnia, Williams does restrained work, perhaps for
the first time playing the psychopath he is inside. It's quiet,
all tensed muscles and jaws, but as creepy and slimy as the underside
of the Arvada Tavern's urinal. Pacino has his over-the-top moments
as his mind collapses in exhaustion and there is one unnecessary
outburst, but these moments are few and not as distracting as,
say, Hillary Swank's horseteeth.
How the fuck did they get those things into her mouth? I imagine
it was a process similar to getting a ship into a bottle. Teeth
aside, Swank is underused in her golly-gee-whillikers role as
the näive young detective. Her character isn't established
as much more than a plot device before she is thrust into peril.
The damsel in distress the worst part of the movie. It is a
tacked on ending that tries to nicely redeem Pacino and make sure
the bad guys are properly punished. Why the fuck do movie characters
always get this luxury. There is no happy ending to the dramas
in my life. I'm just left saddled with the baggage until I they
are dropped so I can carry more recent and bigger quandaries.
The movie should have ended with Pacino trading one moral dilemma
for another and heading back to Los Angeles and more sleepless
nights. It's a sad fucking way to end an otherwise great movie.
Four Fingers for Insomnia. It's the smart shit.