Insomnia (2002)


Full disclosure: I’m not one for thrillers usually; I find them a bit dull in general, because apparently I’ve come to the point where unless there’s piss-raping tentacles and full-body vivisection going on, it just doesn’t do it for me.  What can I say—it’s gotta be just completely bananas, to get me off these days.  That said, Insomnia is … pretty damn good.  Directed by Christopher Nolan, now of Caped Crusader fame, and starring Al Pacino alongside the late, great Robin Williams, it is a fairly standard cop drama brought to life by an outstanding cast.

Sweaty’s Stats



Gorgeous.  This is where Nolan tends to shine.  Right from the opening scenes, the grey, dismal tones against the backdrop of Alaskan ice-capped mountains gives one the proper sense of frigid melancholy the film seeks to portray.


Fair.  The dialogue plays well, but the plot is a bit thin.


Stunning.  Pacino shines in any role; Williams is particularly outstanding as the killer.  Hillary Swank and her massive lips do a fine job.



Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, the Sherlock Holmes of this film, possessing Holmes’s affinity for detail without the cocaine habit.


We’re guessing he got his fill in that other movie.

Pacino and his Watson, played by actor Martin Donovan, leave their native L.A. for Alaska to help in the case of a murdered teenage girl.  Pacino immediately starts showing up the small-town cops with his big city deductions.  And because he’s a damn good cop that doesn’t play by the rules, ‘ol Pacino’s got Internal Affairs breathing down his neck, trying to tarnish his rep.  The bastards.  Why can’t they see that he’s breaking the rules … for justice?


Sweet, powdered justice.

Joined by plucky little rookie cop Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), the trio then engage in a suspenseful romp across the majestic Alaskan wilds, searching for their man.  However, just when they think they’ve got the bastard cornered, tragedy strikes, as Pacino accidentally shoots Watson in the fog.  With his last breath, he curses Pacino out, thinking he shot him on purpose due to the IA scandal.  He dies in a regretful Pacino’s arms, thereby instating cop drama Rule #704: Now it’s Personal.


Rule 283: the inclusion of at least one sweet, sweet cop ‘stache.

Now a duo, grizzled cop Pacino hits the means streets (or empty streets, rather) with his hot, young sidekick, ready to dispense some gritty L.A. cop justice on these Northern Exposure-loving rubes.  At least, that’s what they do by day; tortured by his friend’s death, by night Pacino starts living up to the title of the film.  Meanwhile, IA really starts giving him the business as the death of his former sidekick (who was moments away from cutting a deal with them) casts quite a bit of suspicion on our hero.  Cornered, Pacino has to now hide the evidence of his crime while searching for the real bad guy.


Once again: been there, done that.  (And they said I couldn’t work three Scarface pics into this article.  Ha!  Take that, people I just made up!)

The killer tracks down Pacino’s number and starts in with the whole, “I saw what you did, we’re the same me and you,” business, playing coy over the phone.  Later, Pacino questions/kidnaps the ex-best friend of the murdered girl to get some answers.  Being the slut of the film, she comes onto ancient Al Pacino, because of course she does.  True to his “rogue cop” status, he gets her to spill by almost killing her.


Pictured: “gettin’ answers.”

The killer continues to call and taunt, but it’s too late–‘ol Pacino’s put the pieces together.  Hoping to catch the bird in his nest, Pacino tracks him down.  Adhering to Rule 502: They Always See You Coming, the killer isn’t inside having tea, no—he catches wind, and so a chase ensues.  Pacino loses him, but not before catching a glimpse of the killer’s face.  Enter lovable clown Robin Williams, here to wacky it up and–


“Hey you got a teenage girl or two?  I could really go for some kid murder.”

That’s right, Robin is the psycho murderer in this film and holy shazbot—does he ever play it.  Bringing the same gusto Williams often brought to his comedic performances, he turns on the creepy and cranks it all the way up.  Soft-spoken and calculated in his movements, he plays the murderous writer with chilling aplomb.

Eventually the two meet face-to-face and again, with his back against the wall, Pacino finds himself being blackmailed by Robin Williams.  He begins to sabotage the investigation, but he’s forgotten one thing: his plucky sidekick and her eagerness for the job.


Solving cases, one Botox injection at a time.

Cop and Killer play Cat and Mouse, until they team up to frame an abusive (though innocent) boyfriend for the crime.  Guilt-ridden and unraveling, Pacino makes ready for home, but not before revealing the real reason behind the IA investigation on him to a random stranger (and you better believe it has to do with some rogue cop justice).

In the end, all of our players find their moral compasses wavering, as each must decide if he or she believes in the end justifying the means.  It builds to a suspenseful, though somewhat forced, conclusion (while also observing Rule 224: Ending Must Result in an Epic Shootout).

Final Thoughts

A remake of the 1997 Norwegian of the same name, Insomnia holds its own fairly well.  Even though there are a few cop drama clichés and the plot is more or less predictable, this is decent flick.  It’s shot beautifully, it paces well, and the cast does a superb job at bringing it all together.  Again, it’s hard to go wrong with Pacino, but Robin Williams as a killer … who would have thought?  Despite the rawness of his recent death, I can honestly, and objectively, say that Williams steals the show on this one.  It was refreshing, not to mention haunting, to see him portray such a dark role so aptly.

Though the script is fairly standard, there are some nice surprises here and there, and some interesting plot devices at work.  The way Pacino’s character keeps trying to block out the ‘round-the-clock Alaskan light in an attempt to sleep (though it’s really his guilt keeping him awake) is a nice touch.  Watching as the Alaskan cops slowly put the facts together one step behind Pacino builds worthy suspense.  The face-off between Pacino and Williams during Williams’s interrogation is delightfully tense.  Enjoyable throughout, I highly recommend it for Williams’s performance alone.

Score: 7.5/10, predictable plot, but the acting is solid

An aside: The Tragedy of Comedy

“Life is so important … how can it be so fuckin’ fragile?”

                                          – Walter Finch (Robin Williams), Insomnia

I’m going to forgo the jokes here for a second and address the issue at hand.  Some people have put this much more eloquently than I ever could (and if you haven’t read David Wong’s article on the subject, do so), but this topic does indeed stir up some things in both myself and some my colleagues.  If you have any sort of understanding of comedy—and surely, if you’d read any articles in the past week regarding Williams’s death–then you know that comedians and people who use humor are often not always the jovial laugh-inducers you see once the lights go down.

Comedy is a needle in the vein for some.  As Mr. Wong so succinctly points out, once you learn that you can make people laugh, it becomes almost an obsession, a dragon you chase to make people like you.  A friend once asked me why I was never serious.  We were at a party, he was on the subject of something “real,” and I was cracking jokes, as I do.  I blew him off with more jokes, probably something along the lines of why he’d left his balls behind for the evening (first rule of comedy: always fall back on the dick joke).  See, the comedian cannot turn off around others.  We deflect, we divert, we suppress … sometimes until we detonate.

That too, can be a shitty cycle; once the happy mask falls off, it becomes a perceived stain on our characters that we never recover from. I’ve picked fights in bars, I’ve spent drunken evenings crying on shoulders (sorry Vance), and I’ve even done a stint in the psych ward.  There have been times when I’ve hit the bottle when it would have been better if I hadn’t.  You make mistakes.  Because these are demons that live inside you always; ones you sweat over for a lifetime.  There is no “cure” for depression, only treatment.  Comedy is just another bandage; if you’re joking, if you’re making others happy, it lifts the cloud.  But woe to those who depend on it, because no one, not even the most accomplished comedians, can keep the funny turned on indefinitely.

Add to that the social stigmas and it’s no wonder some of us self-destruct.  People (like this assclown) will scoff at you for going to therapy, for taking medication, for “being weak.”  Listen to me: fuck them.  Fuck those people right into space.  Anyone who thinks that way is an asshole, and there’s no reason to try and live up to an asshole’s expectations.  The bottom line is, you do whatever you need to do to stay on this Earth, no matter how ridiculed you are or how unorthodox your methods may be.  I practice karate (poorly), I play music (equally as poorly), and I write (awesomely.  Kickassedly.  Um.  Badassed-ly?)  I collect cats.  Once a year I take a sabbatical from life and head to the nearest music festival, where I pop pills and dance day and night to a guy overlooking a MacBook.


Cats: nature’s cutest monsters.

And yeah, sometimes I try to make people laugh.

It might be looking forward to the next Silent Hill game, or getting stoned and watching cartoons, or eating a really good burger.  It might be therapy three times a week or a suicide prevention hotline, or gathering with like-minded people dressed as ponies.  Whatever does it for ya, do it; keep that countdown paused.  It is a lonely, stupid, awesome life we lead, and our individuality is what makes us into the weird, occasionally broken, ultimately kick-ass people we are.  Things sometimes go askew, and it happens even to the best of people.

For Robin Williams, the timer ticked down to zero.  I won’t pretend to know his particular situation.  I won’t say that I understand him, and I can’t suggest what might have helped him.  I didn’t know the man.  I will say that I miss him, and that I wish he had found one more reason to stay with us.  But I sympathize with why he didn’t.

To one of the great comedic and dramatic actors of the modern age, I tip my glass.  As an alien he delighted me as a child; as an adult he pulled off a dress and heels better than I ever could.  Here was a man who gave me laughter throughout my life, and never asked anything of me in return.  RIP, Robin.




IMDB for this one

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4 replies »

  1. As far as I’m concerning, Michelle, you latest reviews just shine; this was a great one; but your personal P.S. was incredible, giving us some insight into that special sphere that you inhabit, that you are kind enough to share with us weekly.


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