Like the title indicates, Insomnia is about a man who has difficulty sleeping, although the man is only the person who drives the film. This is a murder-mystery film, one without any big twists and the only thing that it does differently is asking the question “do the ends justify the means” when looking at the plot after it is resolved. Apart from that, and the performance given by Al Pacino in the lead role, it’s nothing special.
Insomnia takes place in Alaska, in the middle of the summer. The sun doesn’t go down, at least, not for long, and this can be difficult to adjust to when you’re sleeping in a hotel room without blinds that close all the way. Detective Will Dormer (Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) have been called up North in order to help in the investigation of a murdered 17-year-old girl named Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe). There are no suspects so far, and, like young local Detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) tells him, most homicides are solved within the first 72 hours, and it’s already been 48 hours.
They go to her house, and they look through her stuff. They find out she has a boyfriend, and they talk to him. Will is a smart person, we learn, and he’s dealt with a lot of these cases before. He knows what to look for, what to say and who to talk to. I usually like it when our protagonist is an intelligent one, because it means that the film ends up playing to the strengths of that intellect. When the body is looked at, we notice bruises from the murder, but also older ones from before. Boyfriend becomes prime suspect number one.
They decide to watch where she was found. Someone shows up, and they trap him in the cabin. But he manages to escape through the bottom, and a chase ensues. It’s foggy, a shot goes off, and Detective Hap Eckhart dies. Pulling the trigger was Will, which is a shame, because his death will look suspicious, due to some deal-cutting down at Internal Affairs which may or may not undermine Will’s entire career. Guilt is what causes Will his difficulty in sleeping, although I would guess adjusting to Alaska time and the sun not setting would also be a reason.
At one point, he receives a call, presumably from the murderer. He says that he saw Will shoot his partner, and that he could blow it open at any moment. He wants to cut a deal too, and the film ends up toying with whether or not Will should make a deal, and also trying to actually solve the aforementioned murder, which actually takes a back-seat for most of the film as we deal with the psyche of our main character.
In the end, this is your standard murder-mystery plot where the killer is revealed earlier than you’d think, and also isn’t surprising given who is listed in the cast. The only thing it does differently is focusing more on the lead than the plot, although a lot of other films have done this too.
And yet, it’s still interesting. Insomnia is an intriguing film that will keep you watching because you want to see what decisions Will makes along the way in order to solve this murder. You don’t care who does it, because we’re told almost mid-way through. But you want to see whether or not the killer is caught and gets justice done, or if the threats made on the phone will be followed through.
I think that the main reason that all of this works is because of the great work put in by Al Pacino. He owns this part, and he made a very believable cop. The things he relies on that he puts into his performances end up working very well for a sleep-deprived cop, and the supporting cast keeps up with him. Swank does a good job as the novice detective, while Robin Williams managed to not annoy me as a novel writer.
Thankfully, like the main character, Insomnia is not a film to insult its audience’s intelligence. While it’s not really a film you have to think about all that hard, you do have to pay attention because things are only going to be explained once. After that, the film assumes that you’re on-board and ready to play ball. If you’re not, you still won’t likely get lost, but you’ll get far less out of the experience. It’s a lot of fun if you keep up, but will lose some of its luster if you get lost.
However, after we find out who the killer is, and what the motivations behind the murder are, we do lose a little bit of interest. We know who did it, or at least, who claims to do it, so the entire reason that Will is in Alaska becomes moot. We are really only watching for one reason at this point, and that’s to see the one big choice at the end that we know our lead will have to make. That’s it. Other elements become superfluous, and are just padding the runtime and getting in our way of the conclusion.
The whole insomnia portion of the film also feels kind of out of place, and doesn’t really impact the story in any way. It pops up a couple of times to put Will’s life in danger, but that’s it. Apart from almost nodding off, or seeing something tat isn’t there, Will seems fine, and is still far smarter than the average human being. (And this is, at the end, not sleeping for 6 nights in a row. Or so he claims.)
Insomnia is a solid murder-mystery that doesn’t do anything special, but is an easy watch thanks to the intelligent main character, as well as the moral choice that is asked at the end. It doesn’t break the mold, and it doesn’t try to be anything more than a fun thrill ride. But for what it is, it’s enjoyable and will keep you entertained for a couple of hours.