INSOMNIA - Blu-ray review

...if there is anything that spoils the fun, it's the plot itself, which is too straightforward and offers too few surprises to be entirely engaging.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Don't lose your way."

After years of doing almost nothing but lightweight fluff like "Bicentennial Man," "Patch Adams," "What Dreams May Come," "Flubber," and "Jack," Robin Williams decided to take a little time off from filmmaking and then come back with a new, darker persona. The result was "Death to Smoochy," "One-Hour Photo," and 2002's "Insomnia." Well, "Smoochy" was pretty bad, but two out of three wasn't bad. More to the point, this was Al Pacino's picture, and it was also his best in years. Indeed, as of this writing, neither actor has done anything significantly better than "Insomnia."

The plot isn't all that inventive, but the performances of Williams and Pacino should effectively keep viewers awake and involved. What's more, the Blu-ray high-definition picture and sound are among the best you'll find.

Directed by Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight," "Inception") and based on a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, "Insomnia" follows the travails of Detective Will Dormer (Pacino), a crack L.A. police detective called to the small town of Nightmute, Alaska, to help solve a murder case. Dormer brings with him a host of personal baggage, though, that torments him the whole time he's there. His Internal Affairs Department is probing his alleged planting of evidence at a crime scene, and he's got a terrible case of insomnia to boot. The sleep disorder is not helped by the fact that the sun is up in Alaska almost twenty-four hours a day.

The crime he's looking into is the beating death of a seventeen-year-old girl by a murderer who meticulously cut off her fingernails and toenails. An old friend, the town's police chief, Charlie Nyback (Paul Dooley), calls Dormer to the scene, and Dormer is more than happy to go, if only to escape temporarily his pressures in L.A. He brings along with him his partner, Det. Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan). They team up with a local police detective, Det. Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), a woman who has respected and admired Dormer from afar for years, studying his most famous cases in the police academy, and together they investigate the case.

The movie's plot deals with three areas: (1) the solving of the crime itself; (2) Dormer's personality and private troubles; and (3) the developing connection between Dormer and the murderer. It's this latter element that makes the film worth watching. Dormer, you see, is a good, seasoned cop and knows how to make things appear the way he wants them to appear. All is going well for him until the murderer thinks he has something on the detective.

Then begins a grim a cat-and-mouse game, and it's never too clear just who's the cat and who's the mouse, as the murderer calls Dormer and begins taunting him. Dormer's insomnia only gets worse.

So, where does Williams come in? He plays a local mystery writer, Walter Finch, the prime suspect in the killing of the girl. He admits knowing her well because she valued his novels, and he says they met often to discuss their mutual interest in writing. He also admits trying to protect her from her abusive boyfriend, Randy (Jonathan Jackson).

Pacino's character is a man possessed by demons unimaginable, and despite his gruff outward demeanor, he has absolutely no idea what's going on in his own head. Pacino has a field day allowing us to watch Dormer disintegrate while trying desperately to keep his wits about him. Pacino, more sleepy-eyed as he gets older, makes his character look more and more haggard as the story goes on.

Williams' character, on the other hand, is always wide-eyed and alert, making him all the more possibly sinister and malevolent. He may not have spent a lifetime involved with crime on a firsthand basis as Dormer has, but he's written enough mystery books to know what to do when things are closing in. He also knows Dormer's mind set, telling Dormer how much alike they are. Finch is more than a good match for the big-city detective, and watching the interplay between the two men is the highlight of the movie. Indeed, without their interpersonal conflict, the movie would be just another routine police procedural, and without Pacino and Williams in the major roles it probably wouldn't have produced much tension.

Director Christopher Nolan does not enjoy the luxuries of the gimmicky plot he had in "Memento," the superhero he had in the "Batman" movies, or the CGI he had in "Inception," but instead he has two fine actors in complementary roles. Dormer says at one point in the movie that being a good detective is seeing the importance of "little things." Nolan sees to the little things, too, from the gorgeous cinematography of the outdoor Alaskan landscape to the dark, brooding interior shots that establish the film's mood. He cultivates his characters' minor quirks, Dormer's increasing edginess and Finch's growing detachment, into major story turns, and before long he has us wondering where Dormer and the murderer's relationship is going next.

There is little actual mystery in "Insomnia," but there is a modicum of suspense. The movie is in parts taut and gripping, and if there is anything that spoils the fun, it's the plot itself, which is too straightforward and offers too few surprises to be entirely engaging. Then, there are the nagging questions that keep popping up, like if Dormer is such a great cop, why at his age is he still at the rank of Detective? And if Dormer really couldn't sleep at night, why didn't he try sleeping pills? Oh, well, trivialities. George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh were the film's executive producers, giving it a touch of class, and the film gets an R rating for profanity.

The Warner video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 encode to present the picture in its original aspect ratio, 2.40:1, in high definition. I thought the DVD picture looked good, but this new HD transfer is superb, among the cleanest, most pristine I've seen. Despite all the white in the scenery--snow, ice, and fog--the screen remains clear, with only a fine, light print grain to remind us of the natural textures of objects and people. Delineation is excellent, razor sharp in most cases, and colors are deep and rich, with strong black levels to set off the contrasts. If faces are sometimes a tad too dark, one has to understand that constantly overcast Alaskan days make everything look dark. It's an impressive image quality, to say the least.

Lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 supplies the sound, and like the PQ it is sharp and clean, doing everything you would expect of modern audio reproduction except, perhaps, delivering an abundance of rear-channel information. Most of the activity we find in the back speakers is minor ambiance enhancement, but every little bit contributes to the overall sonic realism. However, when the few instances of surround sound do occur, they are quite effective, like a passing truck and a near drowning. In addition, expect a balanced frequency response, very wide dynamics, solid deep bass, and often shattering impact.

Warner Bros. provide quite a number of extras, although many of them are brief, not going into as much depth as one would like, and all of them but the audio commentaries are in standard definition.

To begin, there are two audio commentaries, one with director Christopher Nolan and the other, scene specific, with costar Hillary Swank, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Dody Dorn, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and screenwriter Hillary Seitz. Then, there is a three-minute additional scene , with optional director commentary; a stills gallery; and four featurettes. Of the featurettes, the most interesting is "Christopher Nolan Interviews Al Pacino," seventeen minutes, wherein the director and star have an unscripted conversation. After that, we find an eight-minute making-of documentary titled "Day for Night"; a pair of six-minute segments called "In the Fog: Cinematography and Production Design"; and a seven-minute bit on the subject of insomnia called "Eyes Wide Open: The Insomniac's World."

The extras wrap up with thirty scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, German, and Spanish spoken languages; French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
I have to admit I wasn't terribly impressed with the ending of "Insomnia," nor, as I said earlier, did I find the plot in general very stimulating. Both seemed much too pat, with the conclusion, especially, much too easy in wrapping up all the messy loose ends. But it isn't the ending or the plot that matter here, in any case; this is a character-driven drama, with its characterizations and interpersonal relationships counting most, and nothing can detract from the overall fine performances of Pacino and Williams in the main roles. The movie is worth a look, especially now with its outstanding HD picture and sound. At the very least, it should not put you to sleep.


Film Value