Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Paul Dooley
Director: Christopher Nolan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 118 Minutes
Release Date: October 15, 2002

“You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill somebody.”

Film ****

Christopher Nolan may just be the hottest director on the rise since Quentin Tarantino. Rarely does a relatively new and young filmmaker strike gold twice in the sole span of a year. Nolan has, as his first film was the masterful and original noir thriller Memento, which enjoyed a quiet little success for its indie status, as Nolan caught the eye of major studios. For his follow up feature, a task difficult for a director of a movie as great as Memento, Nolan has made a rare accomplishment, which is remaking a relatively known thriller which has resulted in a version that can completely stand on its own. It has been said that good movies should never be redone, because the result is often an insult to the original material. That is not the case, however, with Nolan’s Insomnia, which is a remarkably chilling and effective thriller as you’ll ever see.

The movie also has the bonus of delivering three stellar performances from three greatly gifted actors, including a sinister turn from an actor you’d least expect to have. Al Pacino creates another fantastic characterization as Will Dormer, a veteran LA detective who has been assigned, along with his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), to aid authorities in a small Alaskan town in the investigation of a teenage girl’s brutal murder. Dormer’s reason for working away from his jurisdiction comes as the result of a tension-laced Internal Affairs investigation back home. It’s safe to say that Dormer and Hap need to elude the spotlight of the situation. Worsening the pressure is when Hap confesses to his veteran partner that he has just cut a deal with I.A., which will possibly free any criminals that Dormer locked up when not playing by the rules.

The two cops soon arrive in the small town, appropriately called Nightmute, where upon the sun never sets in the summertime. After examining the body and coming across a bag of items belonging to the deceased girl, Dormer intends to set a trap for the suspect, along with the assistance of local cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). Staking out the location of the killing, the suspect is spotted and pursued by Dormer through a much foggy shoreline, causing the weary-eyed cop to fire a shot at who he thinks is the suspect, but it turns out to be his partner. Now the cop has to deal with covering up the accidental shooting while finding the killer. But pretty soon the killer finds him.

Taunting Dormer through the phone, the suspect, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), throws the cop a slap in the face. Finch claims he witnessed him shoot his partner and that alone prevents Dormer from even thinking of turning Finch in as a suspect, because if he does, Finch will immediately expose him. What begins now is a tantalizing dose of psychological suspense, as Finch manipulates Dormer, who has lost the ability to sleep thanks to the never setting Midnight Sun. And pretty soon, this dilemma causes Dormer to confront his own demons involving certain actions of his in the past that have brought him to his current position.

The performances in Insomnia are masterful every step of the way. First we have the great Al Pacino, who’s probably played more tortured cops than any actor alive. He also played similar characterizations in Heat and Serpico, but this is one of Pacino’s most challenging roles to date. Watching him, you really get a sense that Pacino himself really did lose a certain amount of sleep during production. Then there’s Robin Williams in an Oscar-deserving performance, who delivers an astonishingly creepy turn as Finch. Williams has long been one of the most renowned comedic actors around, and would always have a dramatic turn every now and then, like Good Will Hunting, but in Insomnia, he presents a side of him I didn’t even think existed. A scene in which Finch describes his murderous actions to Dormer over the phone is one of the Williams’ greatest moments ever. And Hilary Swank once again shows what a stunner of a young actress she is as a cop whose suspicions start to grow more and more by the minute.

Directed with a sharp, powerful impact by Christopher Nolan, Insomnia is a dynamic thriller of Hitchcockian proportions, and ranks as one of the best thrillers of recent years.

Video ****

A grandly stunning anamorphic transfer from WB, who have topped their list of some of the year’s best looking discs with this release. This is one thriller that is enormously atmospheric, and alive with some awesome cinematography, and top quality perfection, whether in scenes light and dark, which there are both plenty of, this video transfer strikes the viewer’s eye right from frame one! An enormous triumph! A full frame version is also available, as well.

Audio ****

A positively superb 5.1 audio mix is delivered here from WB, who enliven this film with some stunning dynamic range. An important quality in a thriller is usually sound, and this audio presentation proves the point terrifically. The sound soars whether in dialogue, numerous moments of suspense and action, or in David Julyan’s wonderfully subtle music score. This is surely one disc that will do an impressive job of making sure you won’t go to sleep.

Features ****

WB has improved their use of extras with a number of discs this year, and Insomnia proves to be one of the studio’s top best to date. Included are two commentaries, one with Christopher Nolan, and scene specific commentaries from Hilary Swank, editor Dody Dorn, production designer Nathan Crowley, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and screenwriter Hillary Seitz. Also featured are four documentaries, “Day for Night: The Making of Insomnia”, “180: A Conversation with Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino”, “In the Fog”, a cinematography and production design featurette, and “Eyes Wide Open”, a featurette including interviews with real life insomniacs. There is also an additional scene, a trailer, and a photo gallery.


Insomnia is still high on my current ten best lists and will no doubt remain there by year’s end. It’s a great film, and by far one of the best suspense movies of all time.