As far as “together at last” big-screen pairings go, “Pacino and Williams” doesn’t quite draw the same heat as “Pacino and De Niro”. Yet, when you chuck Memento director Christopher Nolan into the mix, the intrigue level rapidly rises.
Of course, in an ideal world you wouldn’t even know that Robin Williams is in Insomnia, because the studio would have cunningly kept his name off the credits, kept his mush out of the trailers and revealed him to us Kevin-Spacey-in-Se7en style. But this isn’t an ideal world, and because you’re reading this, we’re assuming you don’t live under a rock and already know about Williams’ involvement in this movie.
Evidently keen to ditch his worn-out, mawkish man-child mask (see also: One Hour Photo), Williams plays hermitical crime novelist Walter Finch, a man suspected of battering an Alaskan teenage girl to death. On his trail is Will Dormer (Pacino), a detective whose workoholism is clashing badly with the Alaskan midnight sun, his sleep deprivation threatening psychological meltdown. This is no ordinary hunter/quarry relationship: Finch knows a secret which gives him power over Dormer, and Dormer’s losing track of what’s reality and what’s insomnia-induced hallucination.
Thankfully, both actors excel in their respective roles as flawed cop and twitchy loner, while Nolan expertly referees the cerebral cat-and-mousing. Pacino keeps things sudued, packing an emotional punch as the good cop who’s forgotten how to square his methods with his ideals. Williams, meanwhile, successfully fans away the brimstone stench of Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come and co, his portrayal of Finch unsettlingly convincing as he sneakily rattles Dormer’s moral scaffolding.
It’s all highly involving (and better than the Norwegian thriller it’s based on), but there’s a caveat: anyone expecting a grey-matter-mangler along the lines of Nolan’s chron-illogical Memento will find Insomnia’s plot conventional, with a pay-off that doesn’t quite deliver the kick you’d hope for. Also, to reluctantly mix a metaphor, while the story is mainstream, the style is way out in leftfield. Nolan splices in shocking scene fragments that could either be flashbacks or flashforwards, and he plays with the perpetual daylight idea by bleaching the gorgeous Alaskan landscapes to a blinding, agoraphobia-inducing degree.
This man’s expanding talent is undeniable, and it’s reassuring to see him given a big budget and big stars on what’s only his third feature (check the exec producer credits and you’ll see why: George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh clearly offered guidance). Yes, Robin Williams’ involvement should have been kept under wraps, but giving Insomnia to Nolan was the smartest of moves. Sometimes Tinseltown does get it right.